French Strikers Take On Sarkozy

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 15, 2007

PARIS, Nov. 14 -- Strikers shut down French trains and buses, disrupted electricity production at nuclear plants and barricaded universities Wednesday, giving President Nicolas Sarkozy the toughest challenge yet to his ambitious plans for restructuring the country's huge social welfare programs.

Commuter traffic backed up along miles of highways leading into Paris during the morning rush hour, while thousands of Parisians took to bicycles, in-line skates, children's scooters and sneakers to get to work.

But the transit stoppage was just the start of woes for residents, tourists and Sarkozy's six-month-old government. Technicians at the Paris Opera House and the Com¿die Fran¿aise and employees at electric and gas companies also walked off their jobs. Student strikes closed about one-third of the nation's universities.

In the next several days, civil servants, teachers, postal and telecommunications workers, bank employees and judicial magistrates are scheduled to pile on, to press their own grievances over Sarkozy's plans or to demand pay raises and better working conditions.

"I will pursue these reforms to the end," a defiant Sarkozy told the European Parliament as the strikes were launched. "Nothing will blow me off course."

Sarkozy was elected in part on promises that he would streamline France's turgid bureaucracy and restructure workplaces to make the country more competitive in the global marketplace. Workers from most of the sectors he is attempting to change are piggybacking on the transit strikes to forestall those changes.

Government employees are trying to retain special pensions, students are resisting proposals to give universities more control over finances and admissions, and magistrates are opposing attempts to consolidate courthouses.

In the face of the second round of public-sector strikes in a month, Sarkozy's cabinet ministers warned that the disruptions could last for days. "Fasten your seat belts," advised Prime Minister Fran¿ois Fillon. "Millions of French people will be deprived of their fundamental freedom -- the freedom of movement and even perhaps to work."

Newspaper and television opinion polls released Wednesday show dwindling French public support for unions that for decades have shut down services to thwart government efforts to reduce pensions or shrink government institutions.

In a survey conducted for the daily newspaper Le Figaro -- which is generally pro-Sarkozy -- and television network LCI, nearly seven of every 10 people polled said the strikes were unjustified.

Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand held back-to-back negotiations with labor unions throughout the day in an effort to minimize the length of the strikes.

With most suburban trains idled and only a single automated subway line running on schedule Wednesday, Sarkozy said he was prepared to begin negotiating with unions over modifications to his program, French news media reported late in the day.

But workers for the national rail network and the Paris public transportation system voted Wednesday afternoon to continue the strike into Thursday, with daily votes on continuing the work stoppage in the following days, union officials said.

Many of the unions -- including transit workers, electric company employees and opera technicians -- were striking to protest Sarkozy's effort to eliminate a post-World War II benefit that allowed workers in certain hazardous or difficult occupations to retire with full benefits after 37 1/2 years of service, rather than the 40 years required of most workers. Sarkozy has said these special pensions for 500,000 eligible workers and 1.1 million retirees cost taxpayers about $7 billion a year.

Special provisions for Opera House workers date to an edict issued by King Louis XIV in 1698, according to French news reports.

Natalie Levy, wearing a skirt and black high-heeled pumps, attempted to negotiate a crowded rush-hour sidewalk aboard her son's scooter Wednesday morning. She hit a gaping crack in the concrete, wobbled and snapped a heel.

In no mood to sympathize with the unions or the government, she groused: "The unions are selfish and the government is spineless. How is Sarkozy going to reform the country and make workers more productive when he can't even get us to our jobs?"

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