Second day of transport problems as French unions mull more strikes

19th October 2007, Comments 0 comments

19 October 2007, PARIS (AFP) - French commuters faced a second day of disruption on the rail network Friday, as unions discussed more strikes against government plans to reform pension privileges enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of public sector workers.

19 October 2007

PARIS (AFP) - French commuters faced a second day of disruption on the rail network Friday, as unions discussed more strikes against government plans to reform pension privileges enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of public sector workers.

After Thursday's day of action brought out some 75 percent of railway workers -- the biggest turn-out in many years -- serious problems persisted Friday on the Paris metro and regional train services.

Some 233 kilometres (150 miles) of traffic jams were reported on the Paris outskirts, more than double the daily average.

The state rail company SNCF and metro operator RATP said that the situation would gradually return to normal as the day progressed. With tens of thousands of South African and English rugby fans expected in the capital during the day to attend Saturday's World Cup final, Eurostar connections with London were operating without problem, SNCF said.

Unions hailed as a massive success Thursday's 24-hour stoppage and threatened more action unless the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy offers new proposals on the pension reform.

"In its current format the reform will not pass. The ball is in the government's court," said Bernard Thibault of the General Labour Confederation (CGT). A meeting of union leaders is to take place Monday to discuss the future of the movement.  

Two small unions voted to continue striking Friday, but their impact was not expected to be large-scale. A third union representing train-drivers that had planned to strike Friday changed its mind after receiving guarantees that its members would remain a special category.

The government has said it will not be budged from plans to overhaul the country's so-called "special" pension systems, which are enjoyed by 1.6 million rail, energy and other workers.

Invoking social equity, Sarkozy has begun moves to lengthen contribution periods for these workers from 37.5 years to 40, closer in line with other public and private sector employees. Currently some railway staff can retire on a full pension at the age of 50.

Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand invited unions to talks next week, and said concessions could be possible on the "level of pensions payments." But he insisted the governemnt would not give way on the contribution period.

"If we want to guarantee our pensions, we have to work longer," he said.

An opinion poll in the centre-right newspaper Le Figaro found that a large majority of the public does not want the government to give way.

Sixty-seven percent said the government should not "yield to the union's demands". Some 40 percent said they thought the strikes would last several more days and 32 percent said it would go on even longer.

"In the name of what do the beneficiaries of the special systems think that they alone in our country should be spared from longer contribution periods when life expectancy for the whole country is so much greater?" Le Figaro asked in an editorial.

But the left-wing Liberation said the success of Thursday's action showed how Sarkozy's popularity is fading, as he moves from tax-cutting reforms that help the middle classes to austerity measures that affect the lower-paid.

It also accused Sarkozy of orchestrating Thursday's news of his divorce from his wife Cecilia in order to divert attention from the strikes.

The protest movement is seen as the first major challenge to Sarkozy, who has promised a root-and-branch overhaul of the country's economy and society.

The last time a French government tried to change the "special" pensions regimes was in 1995 when prime minister Alain Juppe was forced into a humiliating climbdown by weeks of strikes. But French society has moved on, ministers now argue.

The 16 category-based "special" systems were set up before the post-war introduction of a general pensions scheme for all workers. They are enjoyed by workers at SNCF, metro operator RATP, energy suppliers EDF and GDF as well as fishermen, miners and parliamentarians.

Some 500,000 workers pay into the systems but there are 1.1 million drawing pensions, and this has led to an annual shortfall of five billion euros (seven billion dollars) borne by taxpayers.

AFP

Subject: French news

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