Week of strikes set to disrupt public services

France is bracing for a week of transport and public sector strikes affecting rail transport, schools and postal services as unions launch a spate of campaigns against the proposed labour reforms of President Nicolas Sarkozy.



PARIS - France faces a week of disruption from transport and public sector strikes as unions wage a number of separate campaigns against President Nicolas Sarkozy's labour reforms.


Hundreds of domestic and international flights were cancelled for a third day on Sunday as Air France pilots pursued a four-day strike, due to end late on Monday.


Travel chaos could spread to the railways on Tuesday when train drivers stage the first of two strikes called by separate unions within days of each other over freight sector reforms.


On Thursday, demonstrations by teachers over budget cuts threaten school closures and on Saturday, postal workers say they will strike for a day over partial privatisation plans.


The head of one of France's biggest unions, CGT leader Bernard Thibault, urged Sarkozy to pay the same attention to workers' demands as he and other world leaders have devoted to finding a solution to the financial crisis.


"It is urgent to tackle the social situation," Thibault told France Info radio.


Sarkozy is due to return to Paris on Monday or Tuesday after a private visit to New York following the weekend's Group of 20 economic summit, which he labelled a "historic" success.


Sarkozy has denounced the excesses of capitalism following the worst financial crisis in decades but has angered unions by spending billions on bailing out banks while dismantling part of France's 35-hour work week and relaxing other restrictions.


According to a poll for Sunday's Journal du Dimanche paper, the conservative leader's approval rating recovered one percentage point to 44 percent this month after falling sharply since he was elected last year.


Prime Minister Francois Fillon saw his personal approval rating improve two points to 55 percent.


With few signs the disparate strikes have struck a chord with the public and with the opposition Socialists distracted by squabbling, the unrest is not yet seen as a major political threat to Sarkozy, whose government avoided fanning the dispute.






The series of strikes comes as leading unions jostle for position in elections for labour arbitration panels on Dec. 3.


A bid by the government to end the Air France strike by guaranteeing the right to retire at 60 broke down on Saturday when pilots voted against ending their strike half way through.


Air France said it would operate 65-70 percent of long-haul flights and around half of its planned short- and medium-haul flights on Monday, the same level as on previous days.


The strike is over proposals to allow pilots to retire at 65 rather than the current retirement age of 60, a measure being discussed in parliament as part of social security reforms.


Air France and the government say the planned change would be voluntary and pilots would not be forced to work until 65. But unions believe it is the thin end of a wedge that will force staff to work longer or accept lower pensions.


To try to avert a rail strike, state operator SNCF was due to hold partial talks with a group of union leaders on Sunday evening over its efforts to change freight service working hours


The last strike on Nov. 6 caused significant disruption.


Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand defended the reform drive.


"It is indispensable. The freight reform is necessary and on retirement, people are living longer and we must get away from having one cut-off retirement date for all," he told BFM TV.

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