French bid to abolish bank holiday riles unions

22nd April 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 22 (AFP) - A French government bid to abolish a May bank holiday in order to raise money for the elderly appeared headed for serious trouble Friday after unions said workers were being exploited and called for a day of strikes and protests.

PARIS, April 22 (AFP) - A French government bid to abolish a May bank holiday in order to raise money for the elderly appeared headed for serious trouble Friday after unions said workers were being exploited and called for a day of strikes and protests.

In a law last year, President Jacques Chirac's administration turned Whit Monday - which this year falls on May 16 - into a normal working day in order to produce an extra EUR 2 billion (USD 2.6 billion) for a "National Solidarity Fund."

But with the day approaching, nearly three-quarters of French workers say they oppose the suppression of the holiday - and for unions the dispute has become a useful pressure-point against a government traumatised by fears of a "no" vote on the European Union constitution.

Whit Monday - the Christian feast of Pentecost - has been one of France's 11 annual bank holidays, and this year comes less than two weeks before the country's referendum on the EU treaty - which all polls suggest will be won by opponents.

In theory businesses and public sector services should remain open, but there were growing signs that many workers will fail to turn up.

"Employees do not accept having to work an extra day. Care for the elderly is a real problem, no-one can deny it. But the government's method for tackling it is not acceptable," said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Force Ouvriere union which has called for strikes and stoppages on the day.

"Workers are fed up with being the ones made to foot the bill," he said.

Other unions are also calling for stoppages, and the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC) has filed suit at a Paris court, charging that the abolition of the holiday is illegal.

Government fears that the dispute could further feed the rejectionist camp ahead of the EU referendum were illustrated by a decision by the state-owned SNCF rail company - traditionally a hot-bed of union militancy - to declare that Whit Monday will remain a holiday for its 160,000 staff.

The announcement - a reversal of an earlier decision - was taken after two rail unions threatened to go on strike on May 16, and followed a telephone plea from the office of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to SNCF president Louis Gallois, Europe 1 radio said.

Instead of working the extra day, SNCF staff will add between one and two minutes to their work rosters for the rest of the year in order to make their contribution to the solidarity fund, the company said.

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

The law stipulates that companies and local administrations can choose to work days other than Whit Monday if there is agreement with unions.

"During the heatwave the prospect of giving over a special day of solidarity appeared a long way off. But now the effort is before us, and we have to re-explain why the day has to be worked," said Catherine Vautrin, secretary of state for the elderly.

An opinion poll in Le Parisien newspaper showed that 66 percent of the population were against the government's plan, but the figure was 74 percent among those in work.

Chirac's government is anxious to avoid an increase in social tensions when every effort is being made to rescue the "yes" vote in the May 29 referendum.

Polls show that the biggest increase in the "no" camp's support - which is put at between 52 and 58 percent - has been among disenchanted left-wingers.

© AFP

Subject: French News

0 Comments To This Article