Strike shuts down French schools, offices, museums

20th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 20 (AFP) - School classes and government offices across France were closed Thursday as teachers and civil servants kept up the pressure on President Jacques Chirac's government with a third day of stoppages in the state sector.

PARIS, Jan 20 (AFP) - School classes and government offices across France were closed Thursday as teachers and civil servants kept up the pressure on President Jacques Chirac's government with a third day of stoppages in the state sector.

Five million state-paid employees in schools, hospitals and government administration were urged to stop work in what was billed by unions as a campaign to defend public services.

In Paris several major museums including the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay were closed, and at Bordeaux airport air-traffic was disrupted by striking controllers.

Tens of thousands of civil servants and teachers joined a series of marches in cities across the country, with the largest taking place during the afternoon in Paris.

Some 40 percent of teachers stayed away from school and just over 20 percent of civil servants, according to ministry figures.

On Tuesday postal workers launched the protest movement, which was followed on Wednesday by thousands of rail and electricity workers. Train services, which were badly disrupted, returned to normal Thursday.

Unions accuse Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government of neglecting the public sector in its drive for budget savings and greater flexibility in the workplace.

"Our country's problem today is one of direction, vision and hope. The government only sees the problem through the money issue. A civil servant hears two things: you cost too much and there are too many of you. It is not very motivating to work in a system like that," said Francois Chereque of the CFDT union.

The government said it was ready to listen to the grievances in the public sector, but could not agree to reverse its policies of cautious economic liberalisation.

"What we have is a series of strikes observed to varying degrees. It's something we have to listen to - but the listening has to be a two-way process. We have to modernise the country as well," said Finance Minister Herve Gaymard.

Civil service unions are demanding the reopening of pay talks and a reversal of the government's policy of gradual job losses as large numbers move into retirement in the coming years. Teachers also want to stop a new education bill which was approved by the cabinet this month.

The three days of protests were being seen as a test both of the government's resilience and of the unions' capacity to organise their forces after a year of relative social quiet.

An opinion poll on Tuesday indicated that 65 percent of the population supported the strike movement.

Unions hope to carry forward the momentum to a further day of action on February 5 against plans to loosen the mandatory 35 hour week by making it possible for employees in the private sector to work longer.

The disruption has reopened debate over the need for a law guaranteeing a minimum service during public sector strikes. A loose agreement reached late last year with rail unions aimed at reducing the impact of disputes failed to make a difference this week.

The president of Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party Nicolas Sarkozy said the government had committed itself to a law when it came to power in 2002.

"I note that (a minimum service guarantee) exists in hospitals and on television. There is no reason why it could not be put into effect on public transport. With a monopoly like this, there is no reason why passengers should feel they are being taken hostage," he said.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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