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Week of strikes and protests gets underway in France

A teachers' strike on Monday opens what is expected to be a contentious week of labour unrest in France. Hundreds of protests are planned for Tuesday to rally against pension reform but new polls suggest the unions should proceed carefully.


One week after the opening of the school year, college and high school teachers across France stayed at home on Monday as part of a one-day strike to protest against working conditions. The move by the country’s two largest teachers' unions opens what is expected to be a volatile week ahead of Tuesday’s national strike organised by French labour unions.

Union organisers hope to mobilize millions of people at rallies across the country to protest against the government’s proposed pension reforms. The new plan is to be submitted to Parliament on Tuesday by embattled Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who has been tarnished by his involvement with the L’Oreal heiress scandal.

The unions are opposed to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to raise the pension age to 62 years from the current 60 by 2018. Union leaders are also angry over what they perceive as the government’s refusal to negotiate, and claim that a national strike is now their last option. “The only chance today, since dialogue will not allow us to do it, to change the reform, to make it more fair, is to be numerous in the streets on Tuesday,” said Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT, one of the major unions organising Tuesday’s protest. 

A new IFOP Institute poll released this weekend suggests that Chereque and his fellow union leaders may have cause for concern over whether or not Tuesday’s strike will be effective. A slight majority of the population, 53 percent, supports the President’s reform proposals, or at least finds them “acceptable.” In what appears to be a society evenly divided on the issue of pension reform, the union’s decision to strike could potentially backfire. With schools, public transportation and telecommunications services all expected to encounter major disruptions on Tuesday, the frustrations of millions of commuters may come back to haunt the unions in their public approval rating.

Another poll, also released on Sunday, reveals troubling indications for the president as well. Even though half of those surveyed appear to support Sarkozy’s pension reform plans, that does not appear to translate into broader approval of the president’s performance. According to the latest figures, the president’s approval rating has now slipped to 32 percent, the lowest level since he took office in 2007.

Nonetheless, the government appears determined to push the reforms through parliament. With deficits now projected to exceed 8 percent of GDP, France has almost triple the allowed debt, according to European Union regulations. Nowhere is the crisis more acute, according to the government, than with the country’s pension programme that is expected to run a 10-billion-euro deficit this year. The president and his supporters claim those costs will skyrocket to 50 billion euros by 2020 without an aggressive austerity plan.
With both sides confronting tepid public support, President Sarkozy and the unions have a lot at stake in this week’s confrontation. Turnout at the protests will be a key indicator to watch on Tuesday. A strong showing will likely preface more labour unrest to come.


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