Record numbers of French demonstrators took to the streets on Tuesday in their latest protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan for pension reform, prompting a second straight day of strikes on public transport on Wednesday.
AP - Train travelers and commuters in France faced a second straight day of disruptions and hassles Wednesday as unions pressed on with an open-ended strike to try to force the government to drop a plan to raise the retirement age by two years.
A day earlier, about 1.23 million people marched in protests against the plan, according to police figures - the largest turnout in four nationwide demonstrations over the last five weeks. Unions put the figure at much higher, at 3.5 million.
The strong turnout could be a signal of rising momentum for the movement facing off against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing conservatives over their proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Many youths have now joined in the protest.
The government has refused to back down, saying the plan is the only way to save the money-draining pension system. Some unions upped the ante by declaring open-ended strikes starting Tuesday, meaning walkouts could drag on for days or even weeks.
On Tuesday, the strike canceled flights and trains and shut down the Eiffel Tower. Students blockaded some high schools, canceling classes.
The outlook for Wednesday was still uncertain in some sectors, but many workers at the national railways planned to stay off the job, and the train network said about one fast train out of three would run.
About three trains out of four were expected to operate on the Paris subway, but some suburban commuter train routes were to be badly hit for a second day.
Some oil workers pledged to keep up a protest at refineries, and one union warned of looming gasoline shortages.
If the walls of Paris could talk, they would tell the story of a city simmering with political frustration. Here, in Paris’s 3rd arrondissement (district), is a sticker of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with “Enough!” written on his forehead. (Photos: Rachel Holman)
Nearby on the Boulevard du Temple, one of many pedestrian poles tagged with a sticker calling for "Social justice" and a "General strike".
On the Paris Metro's line 4, which runs from Porte d’Orleans in the south to Porte de Clignancourt in the north, an ad-hoc sign urges "Retirement: No to this unjust reform!"
A billboard at the foot of Montmartre plastered with posters calling for "Strike until victory!", "Retract the law on retirement," and one picturing Sarkozy next to embattled Labour Minister Eric Woerth on a 500-euro bill saying "Out! Because they're worth nothing".
Back in the 3rd arrondissement, an exhibit features pictures of a French retirement home for artists, meant to "force us to confront the image of our society in the face of old age, at a time when the debate over retirement reform seems is focused solely on economics."
A store window on rue Jean Pierre Timbaud in the 11th district displays a picture of Adolf Hitler, saying: "Me too, I began like that with the Roma, before exterminating one million of them in the concentration camps. Make a little effort Nicolas".
In the same window display is another photo depicting Sarkozy as General Philippe Petain, head of France’s Vichy government, which collaborated with Nazi Germany. The words above and below the image read “Son of Petain”.
On Avenue Parmentier, in the 11th arrondissement, a school banner says: “Solidarity school: families of undocumented immigrants must be regularised”. Many are frustrated by France's refusal to grant papers to immigrant parents whose children attend French state school.
Many schools feel they are unfairly excluded from the Priority Education Zones or ZEPs, whereby educational institutes are eligible for extra resources. On rue Christiani, in the 18th arrondissement, a school banner demands “ZEP! Why not us?”
On Tuesday, hundreds of tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower were ushered away after workers there voted to join the strike.
“The closure of the monument is a symbol,” said Yann Leloir, a striking employee. The tower - France’s most-visited monument - is expected to reopen Wednesday as usual.
Unions fear the erosion of a cherished workplace benefit, and say the cost-cutting ax is coming down too hard on workers.
Despite the strikes, parliament has pushed ahead with the reform: The lower house approved it last month, and the Senate has already approved the article on raising the retirement age to 62 but is still debating the overall reform.
Even with the change, France would still have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world. The country has a huge budget deficit and sluggish growth, and the government says it must get its finances in better order.
France’s European Union partners are keeping watch as they face their own budget cutbacks and debt woes. Sarkozy’s government is all but staking its chances for victory in presidential and legislative elections in 2012 on the pension reform, which the president has called the last major goal of his term.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon told lawmakers that backing down would be “economic madness and a social catastrophe.”
Some high school students took part in protests, saying they feared for their future. In Paris, high schoolers from suburban Vitry-sur-Seine carried a cardboard coffin above their heads in a mock funeral procession.
“It’s Sarkozy’s tomb,” said 17-year-old Roxanne Evenisse.
Another marcher said he doubted the protest would move France’s leaders.
“They are deaf,” said Jean Baillon, 57, an employee of France’s nuclear energy agency, CEA. “But if this lasts a few more days, then maybe that will change.”
Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT labor union, told i-Tele news channel that this time the strikes “will continue for as long as needed.” Past walkouts on the issue lasted only one day.
Date created : 2010-10-13