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French unions flex their muscles in nationwide strike

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-03-23

French public sector workers went on strike Tuesday to protest against the economic policies of President Nicolas Sarkozy and flex their muscles ahead of a tough round of negotiations on pension reform.

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have taken to the streets across France to protest against the government’s policies on jobs, pensions, and the economy.
The industrial action comes in the wake of the ruling UMP party’s drubbing in regional elections Sunday, in which left-wing parties took all but one of mainland France’s 22 regions.

Tuesday’s strike affected transport and postal services as well as schools, with one in five primary and secondary school teachers striking, the education ministry confirmed.

At mid-day, turnout was down slightly from the last day of nationwide industrial action on March 19, 2009. According to government figures, about 17% of civil servants went on strike against 26% last year.

French rail operator SNCF said about one out of three train drivers went on strike. The turnout was especially strong among staff in the judiciary and most court hearings in Paris were suspended.

France's biggest union, the CGT, said 800,000 people took part in 180 protest marches across the country, not counting a major march in Paris that got under way on Tuesday afternoon. Town-by-town police figures put turnout at less than half the level estimated by unions.

Sarkozy ran his 2007 campaign on a platform of economic reform. But the French president is under mounting pressure from France’s powerful unions over job cuts, the rising cost of living and a controversial pension reform package that could increase the retirement age.

Reform fears

Pensions are a big concern for French workers. Even in private businesses, employees’ pensions are mostly managed by the public sector.

Sarkozy has earmarked a reform of the pension system as his next major challenge.

Workers, especially in France’s huge public sector, fear that reform will mean increasing the number of years they work in order to qualify for a full pension.

For the country’s legion of train drivers, this is a pressing issue as they have traditionally enjoyed earlier retirement than other public sector workers (it is possible for them to retire at 55).

Reforming the pension system in France, where the right to a pension from the age of 60 has been enshrined in law since 1982, is considered a political hot potato.

On Monday, a day after the electoral debacle, Sarkozy and his Prime Minister Francois Fillon move to reshuffled the cabinet and sack Labour Minister Xavier Darcos, the man who would have been in charge of leading negotiations.

Darcos was replaced by former Budget Minister Eric Woerth, of whom CGT union leader Bernard Thibault says he “has a reputation for being the man behind cuts in public service employment.”



Date created : 2010-03-22


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