Sarkozy appeals to French public in union showdown
21 September 2007, PARIS (AFP) - President Nicolas Sarkozy sought Thursday to rally the French public behind his reform agenda, after hostile unions flexed their muscles by calling a national strike of rail and power workers.
21 September 2007
PARIS (AFP) - President Nicolas Sarkozy sought Thursday to rally the French public behind his reform agenda, after hostile unions flexed their muscles by calling a national strike of rail and power workers.
In a prime-time interview on France's two major television networks, Sarkozy said he would "not compromise" on plans to end special benefits that allow half a million public transport and utility employees to retire as early as 50.
Sarkozy said the flagship reform of the "special" pension regimes -- an election pledge popular with voters but seen by unions as a frontal assault on hard-won labour rights -- was a question of "fairness".
"We will negotiate as long as it takes... but I will not give in on this principle," he said, repeating his goal of aligning special pensions with the wider public sector.
After a smooth first four months in office, Sarkozy appeared headed for his first major confrontation with unions over the latest proposals.
Six unions from the state-owned SNCF rail company Thursday called a one-day rail strike for October 18 as a show of force after Sarkozy this week confirmed a string of welfare reform plans.
Workers at electricity and gas suppliers EDF and GDF are to join in the strike to protest the pension reform and the proposed merger between GDF and the utility Suez approved by the government this month.
In addition to an overhaul of special pensions, Sarkozy confirmed plans to slash jobs in the 5.2-million-strong public sector through buyouts and attrition, and shake up its ethos by introducing performance-related pay.
Opinion polls show a majority of French people back reforms of the special pensions system but support for the public service, which employs one in five people in the workforce, runs strong.
"I want there to be less public servants, but better paid," Sarkozy said, spelling out his plans.
Asked whether France was headed for a repeat of the 1995 strikes that crippled public transport for three weeks and forced the government of Alain Juppe to back down, Sarkozy replied: "I was elected to find solutions to France's problems. If there are problems we will tackle them."
"You cannot stop people from striking, it is a constitutional right," he added.
Sarkozy has given Employment Minister Xavier Betrand the task of holding talks with unions on pension reform, with a view to reaching a deal in the coming months.
But the head of the country's biggest union, the CGT, accused Sarkozy of setting an "ultimatum".
"Nicolas Sarkozy says 'you have to negotiate, but I am going to give you the point of arrival and the finishing date': that is called an ultimatum," charged Bernard Thibault.
Changes to the pension regime would affect 500,000 rail, public transport and utility workers as well as other categories including members of parliament, theatre employees and lawyers' clerks.
Currently the state bails out the "special" pensions fund to the tune of some five billion euros (6.9 billion dollars) a year, because contributions fall far short of payments to the system's 1.1 million retirees.
But the opposition Socialist Party on Thursday accused Sarkozy of resorting to welfare cuts to foot the bill for billions of dollars of tax breaks doled out after his election.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has made his project clear. He has told the French people: you are going to have to manage on your own," said party deputy Stephane le Foll.
Unions representing public sector employees also reacted angrily to Sarkozy's plans, with representives of civil servants, doctors, health care workers and teachers due to meet Friday to agree on a common strategy.
Subject: French news