Postal workers kick off French strike cycle

18th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 18 (AFP) - French postal workers kicked off three days of strikes in the public sector Tuesday, as unions mount a challenge to the cautious liberalisation policies of President Jacques Chirac's centre-right government.

PARIS, Jan 18 (AFP) - French postal workers kicked off three days of strikes in the public sector Tuesday, as unions mount a challenge to the cautious liberalisation policies of President Jacques Chirac's centre-right government.

Some 300,000 staff were urged to stop work on a day that the National Assembly began debate on a bill to open the state-owned La Poste to outside competition in accordance with European Union directives.

Management reported that only 13 percent of workers were on strike, but unions said the true figure was 20 percent.

There were scuffles with police when some 80 postal workers led by the head of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) Olivier Besancenot - himself a postman - demonstrated near the Paris home of Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.

"We have come to state peacefully but firmly to Nicolas Sarkozy and the government of (Prime Minister Jean-Pierre) Raffarin that postal workers will not let this bill go through," Besancenot said.

Several hundred workers also demonstrated at the National Assembly and in Marseille.

The stoppage was the first round in a three-day campaign seen as an important test of the public sector unions' capacity to mobilise their forces after a year of relative social quiet.

Widespread cancellations are expected on the national rail network Wednesday, as traditionally militant unions at the state-owned SNCF protest against a 2005 budget that foresees the loss of some 2,660 out of 170,000 jobs.

The cuts would come through non-replacement of retiring staff rather than redundancies.

Only one in four commuter trains into Paris will be running and one in three TGV fast trains, SNCF warned. Eurostar services to London will operate normally but there will be major disruption on Thalys trains to Brussels and Amsterdam.

The rail strike takes place in spite of an agreement worked out in September between SNCF management and some unions designed to minimise the fall-out of stoppages. That deal fell short of a "minimum service" guarantee which proved impossible to deliver.

Unions representing five million civil servants take up the baton Thursday in a protest centred on pay. The government has offered a general one percent increase in salaries - though this does not take account of automatic rises that kick in with seniority. Unions are demanding five percent.

Teachers are expected to be strongly represented Thursday, protesting against an education reform bill formally approved in cabinet last week. The bill, supposed to reorganise the sector in order to combat declining performance figures, is opposed as "backward-looking" by unions.

Raffarin's government - which came to power in 2002 - has said it has no intention of backing down from its programme of gradual economic change.

"Our reforms have only one objective - to modernise the country. If we do not carry them out the result will be an automatic deterioration of the public service in a few years from now," said government spokesman and budget minister Jean-Francois Cope.

The government has made clear that workers will forgo their salaries for the hours they are on strike - a novelty in French public sector disputes.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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