Wed, Oct 13, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Workers turning up the heat on Sarkozy

WORK:Transport workers, teachers and civil servants went on strike across France yesterday in the latest labor action against the president’s pension reforms


Workers turned up the heat on French President Nicolas Sarkozy by staging a fresh one-day strike yesterday and voting on whether to turn their protest against his pension reform into an indefinite stoppage.

In the fourth major action against the government reforms in just more than a month, transport workers, teachers and civil servants stopped work in a bid to halt the reforms, a cornerstone of Sarkozy’s program.

Millions have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest and hundreds of thousands were expected to join the marches yesterday in Paris and in cities across France, with a further day of street protests planned for Saturday.

However, the reform bill is edging closer to becoming law, and late on Monday French senators passed another key measure, raising the age for a full state pension from 65 to 67. The lower house of parliament has already approved hiking the retirement age from 60 to 62, the most hotly contested measure.

Francois Chereque, the leader of the powerful CFDT union, said he expected a massive turnout at yesterday’s marches because this was “one of the last opportunities” to protest against the reforms.

“The government is today provoking this radicalization,” he told France 2 television.

Aviation and railway officials have warned travelers to expect serious disruption to air and rail traffic.

Up to half the flights to and from Paris Orly airport and one in three at Charles de Gaulle and Paris Beauvais were cancelled. Just one in three TGV high-speed trains was running although Eurostar trains between Paris and London were due to operate normally.

Many Paris commuter trains were cancelled, but buses were operating normally and metro services were also less affected. Pension reform has turned into the biggest battle in Sarkozy’s presidency and the right-wing leader’s poll ratings are at rock-bottom.

But his government has stuck to the reform plans.

“We’re not here to do what’s easy, we don’t always have the people’s approval,” French Labor Minister Eric Woerth told the senators debating the bill.

“It’s difficult to tell the French that they have to work more, up to 67 years, but it has to be done,” he said.

This time some unions have raised the stakes, with threats to prolong the strikes beyond yesterday.

However, it was unclear how many workers would vote to extend their action. All the rail unions voted to ballot their members on an open-ended strike, but teachers and truckers were only planning to strike yesterday.

Union leaders have also appealed to school and university students to join them in the streets — a tactic denounced by Woerth as “totally irresponsible.”

A two-week-old strike at oil terminals in Marseille against port reforms has added to the pressure on the government, with fears that fuel shortages could soon reach refineries.

A CSA opinion poll released on Sunday showed the president’s approval rating dropping one point to 31 percent, his lowest since his election in 2007.

However, the pensions bill is a key plank of Sarkozy’s reform agenda as he eyes re-election in 2012 and tries to rein in France’s big public deficit.

The senate’s deliberations are due to last until Friday and the government hopes for the reform to be passed in its entirety by the end of the month.

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