Top French union chief warns, 'The strike could last'

Posted in Europe | 14-Nov-07 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

A student voted by secret ballot for the renewing of a strike after a general assembly on Monday at the university of Lille, in northern France.

PARIS: As France braced for a fresh wave of transportation strikes, the head of the country's biggest union said Monday that walkouts starting Tuesday night were not just about plans to roll back the early retirement benefits of about 500,000 public sector workers.

"At stake is whether unions in France will retain their say in economic reform," said the union official, Bernard Thibault, secretary general of the Confédération Générale du Travail, or CGT.

Thibault, speaking in an interview, compared the current mood to 1995, when a three-week transport strike paralyzed the country and forced President Nicolas Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, to withdraw a similar revision of public-sector pensions.

"The general discontent is as strong as then," said Thibault, who made his name during the 1995 protests as head of the CGT's train driver section. "We're not trying to copy 1995, but the strike could last."

Coming after walkouts last month, the pension protest has become a major test of Sarkozy's ability to reform France. Sarkozy was elected in May on an ambitious platform to get the French economy into shape by slimming down the public sector, making it easier to hire and lay off employees and challenging the unions.

"I said before I was elected what I would do," Sarkozy said Monday. "We will do these reforms because they have to be done."

According to several recent polls, Sarkozy has public opinion behind him - 6 out of 10 voters agree that public-sector employees, including train drivers and utility workers, should not be allowed to retire at 50 or 55 when the rest of the population works until 60 or beyond.

What began as a confrontation with those affected by the pension measure may be poised to evolve into a broader protest.

Several groups have announced their own walkouts. Civil servants plan to march against job cuts on Nov. 20 and judges are protesting the closing of a number of courts on Nov. 29. Farmers, fishermen and taxi drivers want concessions on rising fuel prices. Since last week, students have been occupying 20 of the country's 85 universities and vowing to support the transportation strike.

Seven out of the eight train driver unions and seven public transport unions have notified management of their intention to strike.

The protest Tuesday is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. with a walkout at SNCF, the state-owned rail company.

On Wednesday, most subways, suburban trains and buses in Paris and other cities will stop operating. Sporadic electricity cuts are expected as employees of Électricité de France join in.

Long-distance and suburban train service will be seriously disrupted, with the Paris region hit particularly hard, unions said. Only one in ten subways will run, according to the Web site of the Paris public transportation company, the RATP. The only subway operating normally will be Line 14, which is automated, it said.

The service on the suburban train network, including the one connecting Paris to its main two airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, is expected to be "basically zero," the RATP site said.

Eurostar services between London and Paris are expected to operate normally, but some trains will not be stopping in Lille and Calais. Some disruptions are expected on the Thalys services to Brussels, but service to Amsterdam and Cologne is expected to be normal.

Labor union representatives will meet every day to vote on whether to extend the strike for another 24 hours, Thibault said. Few union officials expect normal traffic before Friday at the earliest and some predicted that strikes may run into next week, when civil servants begin their protests.

"If these different movements get mixed up, things could get messy," said one of Sarkozy's advisers. "If people are subjected to the inconvenience of transport strikes for a long time, the government will get part of the blame, whatever the polls tell us now."

Sarkozy has staked his legitimacy on victory. Le Monde, the left-leaning French daily, said in its main headline on Monday: "Sarkozy Is Betting His Credibility as Reformer This Week."

The government has repeatedly met with union leaders since the first strikes started on Oct. 18, seeking to find a compromise to avert protests this week or at least weaken them by splitting the unions. Ministers have signaled that there is room for negotiations on some of the terms of the reforms, but not on the basic principle of bringing the number of years worked to qualify for a full pension into line with the rest of the population.

Still, there were some signs that the government could be prepared to give ground on this and other reforms.

"We do not want to be old-fashioned reform-brutalists," Laurent Wauquiez, a government spokesman and member of the cabinet, said Monday in e-mailed remarks that appeared to signal a softening of the official line. "Reform that is just about pain is fated to fail."

"Do not expect from the French government to adopt a radical ideological free-market agenda of reforms," he said but added, "Do not expect us to renege on our commitments either."