Pressure from the street against French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s programme of reforms intensified on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of state employees went on strike, joining a week-long stoppage by rail workers.
Teachers, postal staff, nurses, air-traffic controllers, tax officials and other civil servants staged a one-day protest to demand pay rises and an end to government plans to trim the state payroll.
The stoppage left many schools closed, hospitals proving a minimum service and newsagents without newspapers, adding to the popular exasperation after seven days of severe transport problems.
In addition, protesting students disrupted classes in half of the country’s 85 universities, in a campaign against a law giving faculties the right to raise money from private companies.
Rail traffic remained disrupted, with around half of TGV fast trains running. In Paris, one metro train in three was in service, and once again massive traffic jams built up on roads into the city. The capital’s two airports reported average flight delays of about 40 minutes.
Rail unions, who are protesting against plans to change their ”special” pension system, want maximum pressure on the government ahead of round-table talks on Wednesday that could offer a way out.
The government has dropped its demand that the strike end before the talks get under way and instead says there should be simply a ”back-to-work dynamic”.
On Monday, Sarkozy’s adviser on social affairs Raymond Soubie said he was optimistic a resolution could be found mid-week, after the state-owned SNCF rail company offered a package worth €90-million a year as an inducement to workers.
The strike is over plans to increase contribution periods for the 500 000 workers — mainly in the rail and energy sectors — who enjoy ”special” pension systems and currently retire two-and-a-half years earlier than the rest of the population.
The government has said it will not budge from the core of the reform, which was part of Sarkozy’s May election manifesto, but has suggested salary rises and top-up pension schemes to sweeten the pill.
”You cannot say to the public during presidential elections that … everyone must contribute for the same period, and then give way because the trains aren’t running or the buses are blocked,” said Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
Polls show that most French people support the pensions reform, but they are also increasingly worried over the cost of living and a majority sympathises with the civil servants’ strike.
Unions representing 5,2-million state employees — about one-quarter of the entire workforce — say their spending power has fallen by 6% since 2000, though the figure is disputed by the government. They also oppose plans to cut 23 000 jobs in 2008, half in education.
”In brandishing the theme of the cost of living, the civil servants are pushing where it hurts,” said the pro-government newspaper Le Figaro in an editorial.
Budget Minister Eric Woerth conceded that ”civil servants are not well paid”, but he said that ”in order to earn more, they must accept more responsibilities, do more overtime and also accept there will be fewer civil servants”.
Sarkozy, who has kept an unusually low profile over the past week, is expected to speak publicly in the coming days, possibly spelling out new measures to boost family budgets. A recent poll showed confidence in the president falling to 51%.
According to Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, the strike is costing the country between €300-million and €400-million a day. SNCF says it has already lost €100-million and the metro operator RATP €24-million. — Sapa-AFP