Utilities staff block Parisin anti-privatisation demo

27th May 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 27 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of gas and electricity workers - 80,000 according to unions - marched in central Paris Thursday to protest against government plans to change the nationalised status of the state energy giants EDF and GDF.

PARIS, May 27 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of gas and electricity workers - 80,000 according to unions - marched in central Paris Thursday to protest against government plans to change the nationalised status of the state energy giants EDF and GDF.

Unions hired special trains and buses to bring workers from across the country, and the demonstration was joined by supporters from the state rail company SNCF and the airports authority Aeroports de Paris (ADP).

Some 75 percent of the 150,000 staff at the two companies were on strike for the day, according to unions - though management put the figure at 45 percent - and there were localised power-cuts in the Paris outskirts and on the Mediterranean coast.

Last week the centre-right government of President Jacques Chirac approved a bill to transform Electricite de France and Gaz de France into limited companies and remove the state protection which they have enjoyed since 1946.

The bill goes before parliament on June 15, when unions have promised another day of action.

The measure has been taken in response to pressure from the European Union, which ruled that their existing status makes the companies in breach of competition rules - benefitting from their unlimited state financial guarantee to operate unfairly in the liberalising European energy market.

Though Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has assured that the state's holding will not go below 60-65 percent, unions say the change is a first step to privatisation and they have lobbied opinion with reminders of the power-failures that have hit California, New York and Italy.

For its part the management of EDF has taken out full-page advertisements in French newspapers to explain why the change in status is good for customers. The company says it needs the capital which the change will enable it to raise in order to position itself in the European market.

In a country with a strong attachment to public service, the government has been at pains to stress that the energy companies will remain bound by commitments to provide cut-rate tariffs to the poor, and to ensure an even pricing system across the whole of the country.

Sarkozy has also assured that the public sector status of workers will remain unchanged. Staff enjoy a range of benefits, including job security for life, a special pensions scheme, cheap energy and a works committee funded by a one percent levy on all fuel bills.

Left-wing parties - and some members of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) - support the unions' action. However the left-wing newspaper Liberation admitted Thursday that the protesters have little chance of success.

"They are finding it hard to mobilise opinion. Their own status and notably their pensions are not really in jeopardy, and customers do not care much about a change that will not really affect them till 2007," it said.

2007 is the year when domestic energy supplies in the EU will be compulsorily opened to competition.

© AFP

Subject: French news

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