France faces transport chaos as Sarkozy confronts unions

13th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

13 November 2007, PARIS - France is bracing for several days of transport chaos from Tuesday evening, as railway workers launch an open-ended strike against plans introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy to reform their pensions privileges.

13 November 2007

PARIS - France is bracing for several days of transport chaos from Tuesday evening, as railway workers launch an open-ended strike against plans introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy to reform their pensions privileges.

The national rail network faces major disruption from 8.00 pm (1900 GMT), and on Wednesday morning the shutdown will hit most metro and suburban commuter lines into Paris.

A similar 24-hour strike on October 18 was followed by a large majority of railway-workers, who have vowed this time to roll the action over to the following days if the government does not back down.

Energy workers, who also enjoy so-called "special" pensions systems, have also announced a strike Wednesday while students protesting about a university reform law have threatened to blockade railway stations from Tuesday.

Protest organisers say the stoppages could be extended till November 20, when civil servants pick up the baton in a planned strike over job cuts.

France's 16 category-based "special" pensions systems are enjoyed by railway and metro staff, workers at the GDF and EDF utilities, as well as fishermen, miners, parliamentarians and singers at the state opera.

Beneficiaries can retire two and half years earlier than most people, and their pensions are based on final salaries rather than on an average over the whole career.

Evoking social equity, Sarkozy has vowed to bring the systems in line with the rest of the country, but unions say there has been no consultation and they accuse the president of deliberately seeking a showdown.

Several commentators compared the moment to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's confrontation with the unions in the early 1980s.

"Mrs Thatcher warned that things would be hard. Some found her reforms odious, but she had the courage to be unpopular. The question is, does Sarkozy have the same courage to be unpopular?" said Eric Brunet, author of "Being Rightwing -- a French taboo."

The last time a government tried to reform the so-called "special" pensions systems was in 1995 when three weeks of strikes and demonstrations forced the government under newly-elected president Jacques Chirac into a humiliating climbdown.

But this time ministers say the situation is different, because the climate of opinion has changed -- a majority supports the pensions reform -- and because Sarkozy clearly spelled out his intentions in his May election manifesto.

"What is at stake is people's faith in politics," Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand said Monday.

State-owned SNCF said that only 90 out of 700 TGV fast trains will run Wednesday, and regional services will be "very disrupted." However the Eurostar service to London -- which on Wednesday travels for the first time to the newly-opened St. Pancras station -- will not be affected, SNCF said.

The RATP Paris metro operator predicted just one in ten trains running.

AFP

Subject: French news

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