Wed, Oct 05, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Labor strike leaves France stranded at the platform

AFP , PARIS

Commuters crowd the platforms in Paris' Gare Saint Lazare yesterday. French train, bus and other public services were disrupted after a call by unions for a nationwide strike yesterday to demand higher wages and protest new labor laws that make it easier to fire workers.

PHOTO: EPA

A nationwide one-day strike gripped France yesterday, spreading transport woes and dealing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin his first major test in implementing labor and economic reforms.

In the capital only around a third of suburban train services were running, and there were some cancelations on the bus and metro system -- but overall there was less disruption than expected.

The capital's transport authority last year put in place a system of "guaranteed service" in case of strikes, which appeared to be working.

France's civil aviation authority predicted that 175 short and medium-haul flights would be canceled from Orly airport south of Paris and 212 from Roissy Charles de Gaulle. No disruptions were expected on long-haul flights.

The situation was worse in other cities such as Marseille and Bordeaux, however, where most public transport was out of action.

The SNCF national rail company said that 40 percent of regional services were up and running as well as 60 percent of high-speed TGV intercity lines.

As well as transport workers, around half of teachers were also striking, and most post offices and government buildings and some banks remained shut. Most national newspapers failed to appear.

Five of the country's biggest trade unions called the stoppage to protest policies Villepin's center-right government has brought in to invigorate France's sluggish economy and to push for public sector pay rises.

Demonstrations were planned in more than 140 towns and cities, with the largest leaving the Place de la Republique in Paris during the afternoon.

The unions behind the day of action were boosted by a poll showing they have the support of most of the French, who have already showed their dissatisfaction with President Jacques Chirac by rejecting a referendum in May to adopt a European constitution.

Villepin, 51, a suave and popular politician who gained an international profile during his time as foreign minister during the build-up to the Iraq War, was named by Chirac to lead the government following the referendum's failure.

Given the tough task of reducing 10-percent unemployment, he soon earned criticism from unions and left-wing parties for pushing through by decree a series of measures designed to make France's sclerotic labor market more flexible.

One of those -- a new job contract which gives small businesses a freer hand to hire and fire -- is the focus of much of the protesters' ire amid fears that it might bring an end to France's job-for-life culture.

The strike comes at a sensitive time for Villepin, who has been rocked onto the back foot by a crisis over the privatization of the state-owned SNCM ferry company serving Corsica and north Africa from ports on the Mediterranean coast.

Plans to sell off the heavily-indebted concern sparked days of violence in Corsica, a near-blockade of the island, and the shut-down of France's largest port of Marseille. Though action was taken over the weekend to re-open communications, the situation remained highly volatile.

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