France faced serious rail and air traffic disruption from strikes that were to begin late on Monday as trade unions sought to mobilize millions of protesters against plans to raise the retirement age.
The strikes, mostly scheduled to last 24 hours and organized to coincide with the presentation of a pension reform bill to parliament yesterday, were expected to hit public transport and schools badly.
The labor unrest mirrors action in several European countries against austerity measures imposed to reduce budget deficits swollen by the economic crisis. Governments from Greece to Spain, Italy and Romania have faced down strikers to impose painful pay and public spending cuts.
London’s underground rail network also faced disruption yesterday as workers went on strike over pay and job cuts following the worst economic downturn since World War II. Thousands of workers walked out during the evening rush hour at 5pm on Monday, with another wave to stop work at 9pm in protest at plans to axe 800 jobs in a cost-cutting measure.
The French unions, who backed street marches on Saturday over French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s law-and-order stance following a mass expulsion of Roma immigrants, hoped 2 million people or more would take to the streets for yesterday’s pension protest.
“This is a grave moment,” said Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT union, one of the two largest in the country. “This may be an exceptional day. If it is exceptional, we may be at a turning point.”
Didier Le Reste, leader of the CGT rail workers’ division, denounced what he called a “brutal” reform, telling Le Parisien newspaper that 60 percent of train drivers were expected to join the strikes.
Sarkozy says he is ready to make some concessions, but will not retreat on the essentials of the reform — raising the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60, and the age at which people can retire on full pension to 67 from 65.
Sarkozy is caught between a rock and a hard place ahead of elections in 2012. He needs to leave his mark after promises of a break with France’s failure to embrace economic reform and he also has to slash a swollen deficit, which either means years of austerity, an upward creep in taxation or both.
France’s SNCF state railway company said intercity and local train services would be reduced by 50 percent or more, but that Eurostar links with Britain should run normally, with other international services running close to full capacity.
The strike was due to start at 7pm on Monday on the railways and on Paris’ RATP urban transport network, where underground rail services were forecast to drop to about half of normal frequency.
Air France said short and medium-haul flights would be cut to 50 percent of normal yesterday at Orly airport south of Paris and to 90 percent at Charles de Gaulle airport northeast of the capital, but long-haul services should be unaffected.
France’s civil aviation authority said it had asked all airlines to cut Paris flights by 25 percent yesterday.
Unions at power utility EdF and oil group Total said they planned to stop work at nuclear power stations and refineries, but not to an extent that would cause cuts in household energy supplies.
“The ultimate impact of the strike could be power cuts, but we are responsible,” one union official said.
All the main unions were urging private sector employees to join public sector staff for a one-day stoppage and street protests that they hope will match or exceed the 2 million people they counted nationwide at a similar protest in June.