Strikes test Villepin's resolve on reforms

4th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Oct 4 (AFP) - A nationwide one-day strike gripped France Tuesday, disrupting travel and business and dealing the first major challenge from the street to the economic programme of prime minister Dominique de Villepin.

PARIS, Oct 4 (AFP) - A nationwide one-day strike gripped France Tuesday, disrupting travel and business and dealing the first major challenge from the street to the economic programme of prime minister Dominique de Villepin.

Figures at midday showed a solid if unspectacular turn-out from the public sector, with some 30 percent of railway staff and teachers, 23 percent of electricity workers and between 15 and 30 percent of post-office staff joining the stoppages.

Demonstrations were staged in cities from Marseille in the south to Le Havre in the north, with the largest planned in Paris for the afternoon. Unions were predicting an overall participation of more than one million people in some 140 rallies.

Clashes broke out between police and protesters at a rally in the Corsican port of Ajaccio, where tensions have been running high over the planned privatisation of a state-owned ferry company.

Commuter transport problems in Paris were less serious than feared, with only around a third of suburban trains running but limited cancellations on metro and bus services.

The capital's transport authority last year put in place a system of "guaranteed service" in case of strikes, which appeared to be working.

The situation was worse in other cities such as Marseille and Bordeaux, where most public transport was out of action.

There were delays of up to two hours at Paris's two airports and nearly 400 short- and medium-haul flights were cancelled. No disruptions were reported on long-haul flights.

The SNCF national rail company said that 40 percent of regional services were up and running as well as 60 percent of high-speed TGV intercity lines.

Some hospital staff and government office workers were also on strike, but the private sector appeared mainly unaffected. Most national newspapers failed to go on sale because of action by print-workers.

Five of the country's biggest trade unions called the stoppage to protest against the cautious reform policies of de Villepin's centre-right government and to push for pay rises.

Their main target was a new labour contract -- introduced recently by government decree -- that makes it easier for companies with fewer than 20 staff to hire and fire workers in their first two years of employment.

The unions have been backed by a rare show of unity from the country's left and far-left parties, still smarting from their bitter internecine rift over the EU constitution which was rejected in a referendum in May.

The Socialist, Green, Communist and Communist Revolutionary League parties said in a statement that action was necessary "to break with the reactionary and ultra-liberal (economic) logic of the government."

The strike came at a sensitive time for de Villepin, who has been rocked onto the back foot by a crisis over the privatisation of the National Corsica Mediterranean Company (SNCM) which serves Corsica and north Africa from ports on the Mediterranean coast.

Plans to sell off the heavily indebted concern sparked days of violence in Corsica, a near-blockade of the island, and the shut-down of the France's largest port of Marseille. Though action was taken over the weekend to re-open communications, the situation remained highly volatile.

A loyal ally of president Jacques Chirac who was appointed after the May referndum debacle, de Villepin, 51, has won cautious praise for his first four months in office.

He has been rewarded with a gradual fall in the number of jobless to under ten percent of the workforce, while last week saw his poll ratings overtake for the first time those of interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- the radical rightwinger who is also a likely challenger in France's 2007 presidential race.

But he has been widely criticised for his handling of the SNCM crisis, and commentators said that much will ride on his reaction to the latest wave of social unrest.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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