France’s national strike sees half a million workers
In a one-day strike against government’s pension reforms, more than half a million French workers took to the streets on Thursday.23 May 2008
PARIS - More than half a million French workers took to the streets on Thursday, unions said, for a one-day show of force against President Nicolas Sarkozy's government over pension reforms.
Major queues of trucks also built up at the Channel port of Calais because of a strike against dock privatisation plans.
Rail workers led the national stoppage, with only half of trains running across France, but commuter chaos was limited in Paris and other big cities, as the unions stuck to new rules on providing minimum service during strikes.
The main CGT union said more than 700,000 people marched in 150 towns and cities across France - well over the target of half a million people. Police estimated the nationwide turnout at just under 300,000.
Tens of thousands of people marched in the capital behind banners reading "Hands off my pension!".
"Unless the government changes its mind, there will be more days like this one," warned CGT leader Bernard Thibault at the head of the Paris march, calling the day "an unquestionable success".
Public sector workers were joined at rallies by factory employees - from Airbus, Renault, Total or Michelin - and dockers angry at privatisation plans, including in Marseille where a strike movement shut down the port.
Walkouts were reported across France with between 10 and 20 percent of postal, utilities and telecoms employees joining the strike, officials said.
And radio shows were replaced by music on public stations France Inter and Radio France Internationale.
France's five main unions are protesting at plans to increase the number of years worked to draw a full pension, from 40 to 41, starting next year.
Written into a reform passed in 2003, the pension changes continue to raise hackles in union ranks. Six in 10 French people back the strike movement, according to one poll.
"The government has to accept real negotiations with the unions," said the CGT's Thibault.
The second biggest union, the CFDT, accepts the reform in principle but says it should take into account the physical strain - and the knock-on effect on life expectancy - of various lines of work.
But Sarkozy's right-wing government has vowed to stand firm.
"The question was settled in 2003," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on France 2 television Wednesday night.
Nationwide, half of all trains ran as usual according to the state rail company SNCF, with high-speed Eurostar and Thalys services from Paris to London and Brussels operating as usual.
The Paris metro ran almost normally, but many suburban train lines ran at half-capacity, including the line linking the capital to the Charles de Gaulle international airport.
Air traffic was running as normal from Paris Charles de Gaulle, with minor trouble reported at Paris Orly airport and some provincial hubs.
Thursday's strike comes in the wake of a two-week protest by fishermen who have blockaded oil depots, clashed with police and disrupted cross-Channel traffic to demand state aid over rising fuel prices.
Fishermen's leaders have called for an end to the protests after the government promised to immediately release EUR 110 million from a promised EUR 310 million package.
But many continued to blockade oil depots and ports on the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
Cross-Channel ferry services from Calais to Dover - already hit by the fishermen's strike - were badly disrupted by protests over port privatisation.
Regional traffic authorities said there was a 17 kilometre jam of lorries on the main highway into Calais caused by the strike.
[AFP / Expatica]