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France faces another week of chaos

By John Lichfield

France faces the prospect of widespread paralysis tomorrow if transport and student strikes collide with a one-day stoppage by teachers, postmen and other public-sector workers.

The President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is said to be considering making a speech today which will present the social unrest as an "ideological" contest between the government and union militants, and between the "new" France and the "old".

Anti-strike demonstrators marched through Paris yesterday afternoon to make much the same point, accusing transport workers of causing widespread misery in a "selfish" campaign to protect early retirement privileges.

Some of the more militant striking workers, and students, are calling openly for a political struggle against the whole of M. Sarkozy's economic reform programme. Many others say they are simply digging in their heels against cuts in pensions for which they have worked all their lives.

Seven – out of eight – French rail unions decided yesterday to prolong their strike into a second week, defying M. Sarkozy and – in some cases – the leadership of their own national union federations.

However, in a possible sign of a new willingness to compromise, six of the unions said that they would take part in talks with railway companies and the government on Wednesday, which implied the transport strikes might be suspended after tomorrow.

Unions in the Paris transport system also voted on Saturday to continue the five-day-old protest against M. Sarkozy's plans to bring the pension schemes of 500,000 public-sector workers into line with those of other state and private-sector employees.

The number of workers supporting the stoppages on the rail and Metro networks fell sharply at the end of last week. But the numbers seemed to have stabilised over the weekend.

Two of the more moderate unions, the rail sections of the CFDT and CFTC, have called for an end to the strike and for talks to start on the compensation package offered by the government and the SNCF. The national leadership of the pivotal CGT trades union federation also supports talks with the railways.

The compensation on offer – including pension bonuses and higher pay for those who work after 55 – could have been presented last week as a climbdown by M. Sarkozy.

Instead, a hard core of strikers refused to negotiate, partly for political reasons, partly because of jealousies and tensions within the alphabet soup of eight different union federations.

Tens of thousands of other public-sector workers, including teachers and postmen, will also go on strike for one day tomorrow, in a separate protest over pay, the cost of living and job cuts. Students are being active too, still disrupting courses at around 30 of France's 80 universities in a campaign to overturn a new law which allows some private funding of universities in the state sector.

The more militant union federations are hoping for a "fusion" of all these disputes to generate a lengthy challenge M. Sarkozy on the streets. But this now looks unlikely. Only one in three rail workers, and one in four Metro workers, is still believed to be on strike. The parallel strike in the gas and electricity industry has collapsed.

Belfast Telegraph


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