French energy workers march against privatisation

15th June 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, June 15 (AFP) - Electricity and gas workers cut power to some towns in France and staged a big demonstration in Paris Tuesday to protest plans before parliament to privatise their state-owned sector.

PARIS, June 15 (AFP) - Electricity and gas workers cut power to some towns in France and staged a big demonstration in Paris Tuesday to protest plans before parliament to privatise their state-owned sector.

Unions for employees at the huge Electricite de France (EDF) and Gaz de France (GDF) utilities which called the 24-hour strike and wildcat actions demanded that President Jacques Chirac freeze the reform, which is designed to open the power and gas sectors to competition in line with EU rules.

Workers fearful that their protected industry and generous benefits could be threatened by foreign energy companies cut gas and electricity supplies to the homes of several members of Chirac's ruling party in southwest France to emphasise their demands.

The towns of Cahors and Figeac and shopping centres in the central town of Saint-Etienne also found themselves briefly without power early Tuesday, while in southeast France strikers let down the tyres of 350 EDF vehicles and welded shut doors to several EDF shopfronts.

The actions were a continuation of a strategy that has been going on for weeks. Last week, EDF workers pulled the plug on main railway lines around Paris, forcing the delay or cancellation of 250 trains which affected 500,000 travellers.

On Tuesday, thousands of EDF and GDF employees gathered in the capital to march just ahead of a parliamentary session which was to debate a bill changing the companies' status to allow partial privatisation.

Organisers put the number of demonstrators at 6,000 while police estimated there were 2,600. The march passed off peacefully though it caused traffic jams to pile up in the south of the city.

Economy and Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is pushing for the transformation, has promised that the state's stake in EDF will not fall below 70 percent, but that has done little to convince the unions.

In opening statements to parliament, he said privatisation was "not for right now", but did not give a timetable.

The two energy companies are among the biggest in France. EDF has a payroll of 167,000 employees, revenues of EUR 45 billion (USD 54 billion), and controls or has stakes in several energy companies abroad. The smaller GDF has 38,000 employees and revenues of EUR 17 billion.

The issue is threatening to become a test of wills at a time when the government's mandate for reform has been weakened by the harsh defeat the opposition Socialists dealt it in regional elections in March and the European Parliament election Sunday.

The head of the Communist-backed CGT union, Bernard Thibault, told RTL radio that France was under no obligation to privatise the companies. He noted that the European Commission - the EU's executive arm - was calling only for the government to lift its unlimited guarantee that gave EDF and GDF an unfair advantage over competitors.

"I am making an appeal to the president of the republic. A decision of this nature, of this importance, cannot be made while there is so much contention," he said.

The government, though, sees a partial sell-off of companies such as EDF as a precious source of cash for its coffers. France is on course this year to exceed the euro-zone's public deficit ceiling - three percent of gross domestic product - for the third year in a row.

© AFP

Subject: French news

 

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