PARIS, April 8 (AFP) – Thousands of striking gas and electricity workers marched through Paris and other French cities Thursday to demand the withdrawal of government plans to open up the state-owned Gaz de France (GDF) and Electricite de France (EDF) to outside capital.
Unions representing 145,000 employees called for a day of work-stoppages and targetted power-cuts as the state council – France’s highest administrative court – prepared to examine the proposals to change the status of the two concerns.
The management of EDF said around half of company staff were on strike. In Paris unions said some 8,000 took part in the protest march to the state council offices at the Palais Royal, near the Louvre museum. Other demonstrations took place in Strasbourg, Lyon, Grenoble and Metz.
The centre-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is committed to opening the cash-strapped companies to outside investors so that they can attract the capital necessary for competing in the liberalised European utilities market.
Under European Union directives, state power companies are required to gradually shed their monopolies, with July 2007 set as the date for a completely free market across the 25 member states.
However, unions see an end to the companies’ 58 year-old status as fully nationalised bodies as a first step to privatisation.
“It answers to a purely financial and ideological imperative. The government needs to sell off the family jewels in order to plug the deficit caused by its economic polices,” said Bernard Thibault of the hardline CGT union.
On Wednesday France’s new Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised the companies would not be privatised, and indicated that the minimum state holding could be set at a figure higher than 51 percent – as currently envisaged.
He also said the status of the company staff, who enjoy job security for life, generous holiday benefits and an advantageous pension system, would be preserved.
On Wednesday evening electricity workers anticipated the strike by cutting off power for several hours in the centres of the northern city of Lille and neighbouring towns.
“It is a shot across the bows, a warning so that the government understands that a general power-cut across the whole of the Lille metropolis is not complicated – if it continues with its desire to break up EDF-GDF,” said Thierry Lacherez, regional CGT head.
The CGT said that in millions of homes electricity had been switched over to the lower night-time tariff for the duration of the strike, which would mean a major dent in the company’s income for the day.
The state council, which must be consulted by the government for its view on new laws, plans to discuss the utilities bill on April 22.
Subject: French news