France readies for Pentecost Monday chaos

11th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 11 (AFP) - France faces a day of confusion next Monday as public and private sector workers threaten to defy a government decision to abolish a bank holiday in order to raise funds for the elderly and handicapped.

PARIS, May 11 (AFP) - France faces a day of confusion next Monday as public and private sector workers threaten to defy a government decision to abolish a bank holiday in order to raise funds for the elderly and handicapped.  

The center-right administration of President Jacques Chirac last year turned Pentecost Monday - which this year falls on May 16 - into a normal working day to raise EUR 2 billion (USD 2.6 billion) for the aging.  

But the so-called "day of solidarity" instead looks set to be marked by multiple strikes, sporadic school closings and public anger - an unwelcome mix for the government just two weeks before the referendum on the EU constitution.  

Recent opinion polls show that three out of four French workers do not plan to work on Monday, rejecting the government's idea that they should give up a cherished bank holiday in order to boost the "National Solidarity Fund".  

Some companies have given their employees the day off but plan to contribute to the fund anyway. Others, like the state-owned railway SNCF, will ask employees to work an extra two minutes a day to make up the difference.  

But several trade unions, including all of the main teachers' unions, have urged those employees expected to work on Monday to instead walk off the job, leaving parents wondering how to ensure that their children will be cared for.  

Education Minister Francois Fillon has insisted that all schools will remain open, but there is a strong possibility that some teachers will not report for duty, and that food and bus service will not be provided.  

Public transport workers are expected to strike in Paris, but the transport authority says the French capital's underground metro system will not be affected.  

The idea for a "day of solidarity" followed the devastating 2003 heatwave in which the deaths of some 15,000 elderly people were shown to have been partially caused by the absence of basic care.   

The law abolishing the holiday stipulates that companies and local administrations can choose to work days other than Pentecost Monday - the day after the Christian feast of Pentecost - if there is agreement with unions.  

Despite mounting public anger, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has refused to cede any ground, saying late last month: "I ask that the law, approved by the parliament, be respected by all."  

"The day of solidarity is a call to brotherhood among all French people. It's an act of generosity by French society for itself, for its future," he added.  

The prime minister, however, did not make any mention of possible sanctions should private or public sector companies fail to adhere to the new law.  

A widespread display of public discontent has authorities worried, as it would come just two weeks ahead of the hotly-contested May 29 vote on the European constitution.  

Recent opinion polls have indicated a near even split in the battle over the landmark EU charter, either putting the two sides at 50 percent each, or giving the 'yes' camp backed by the French government a slight edge.  

With the 'yes' camp in a precarious position, Chirac's government is anxious to avoid any spike in social tensions just before the referendum.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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