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PARIS, Jan 17 (AFP) - After a year of relative social calm, France is braced for prolonged disruption in public services this week as unions stage a succession of strikes against the cautious economic reform programme of President Jacques Chirac's government.
Widespread stoppages were being predicted starting on Tuesday in the post office, with the railway network, hospitals and the power utilities badly affected on Wednesday, and millions of teachers and other civil servants being called out on Thursday.
Organised behind a variety of demands, the strikes were being seen as a key test of government resilience - but also of the unions' capacity to mobilise once again after a long period of quiescence.
An opinion poll in Le Parisien newspaper Monday showed a majority of 65 percent of French people supporting the protest movement, with 75 percent saying they would themselves strike to "defend buying power" and 59 percent "to defend public services."
But Jean-Francois Cope - the centre-right government's spokesman and budget minister - said there would be no turning-back from policies that are intended to trim back the country's large public sector through a gradual process of liberalisation and limited job cuts.
"Everyone realises that if a certain number of decisions concerning reforms and modernisation are not taken, then it is the public service itself that will be the first victim," he said.
A high turn-out would provide momentum for a further day of action on February 5 called to oppose government plans to loosen the mandatory 35-hour week by giving private sector employers the right to have their workforce do longer hours.
Postal workers launch this week's protests as the right-dominated National Assembly debates a bill to open the state-owned company La Poste to competition in accordance with European Union directives. Unions also oppose a measure to create a banking subsidiary of La Poste which could be partially owned by private shareholders.
Widespread cancellations on the rail network are expected on Wednesday, as traditionally militant unions at the national operator SNCF protest against a 2005 budget that foresees the loss of some 2,660 out of 170,000 jobs.
These would come through non-replacement of departing staff rather than redundancies.
Only one commuter train into Paris in four is expected to be running, and only one in three TGV fast trains, SNCF warned. Eurostar services between Paris and London would operate normally, but only one in seven of the Thalys trains to Brussels and Amsterdam is expected to run.
The rail strike takes place in spite of an agreement worked out in September between the management of SNCF and some unions which was designed to minimise the risk of disruption. That deal fell short of government promises of an obligatory "minimum service" guarantee which proved impossible to deliver.
Unions representing five million civil servants take up the baton on Thursday in a protest centred on pay. The government has offered a general one percent increase in salaries - though this does not take account of automatic rises that kick in with seniority. Unions are demanding five percent.
Teachers are expected to be strongly represented Thursday, protesting against an education reform bill formally approved in cabinet last week.
The bill, which is supposed to reorganise the sector in order to combat declining performance figures, is opposed as "backward-looking" by unions.
Other groups protesting this week are staff at the state-owned electricity and gas concerns EDF and GDF, which could be opened to outside capital this year; and public sector surgeons, who are demanding more money and jobs.
The government has made clear that workers will not be paid for the hours during which they are on strike - an innovation introduced only in 2003.
"Civil servants know that if they are not providing a service, they are not paid. It's normal," said Public Service Minister Renaud Dutreil.
In the three years since it was appointed by Chirac, the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has made gradual moves towards economic liberalisation - bringing in major reforms of the pensions and social security systems.
However it has failed to adopt the radical economic agenda promoted by business leaders and some politicians from Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.
Subject: French News
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