French strikers joined by private sector workers

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The Independent Online

Transport, schools, postal services, newspapers and banks were disrupted across France yesterday in another day of strikes against the government's efforts to reform the tottering pension system.

Transport, schools, postal services, newspapers and banks were disrupted across France yesterday in another day of strikes against the government's efforts to reform the tottering pension system.

Although the stoppages spread to the private sector for the first time - and some railway and postal unions threatened to strike indefinitely - there were some signs that the protests might be losing momentum. Only 40 per cent of railway workers and little more than 30 per cent of teachers followed the strike order and most unions in the Paris Metro worked.

None the less, rail services were widely disrupted, and seven in 10 internal flights were cancelled because of a strike by air traffic controllers and some Air France workers. There were also partial stoppages in ports, banks, factories, the postal service and some large shops.

Pensions, and how to pay for them as the population ages, is an awkward problem for all European countries, but is especially difficult in France. Pension reform has become the rallying cry for militant union federations - especially teachers and transport workers - who want to halt a wider government plan to reform, shrink and decentralise the state.

In recent days, the government has tried to sap the energy of the teachers' strike movement by scrapping or postponing parts of a separate proposal to devolve control of universities and auxiliary school staff to local control.

But Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the centre-right Prime Minister, insists that the broad lines of his pension reform plan, which goes before parliament next week, must be left untouched. He wants to extend the period in which public- sector workers pay into the pensions system to 40 years from 37 and a halfby 2008 and then gradually increase the working life of everyone.

France has an average retirement age of 57 and a half - one of the lowest in Europe. By the year 2010, if the rules remain unchanged, the present, generous level of pensions will be impossible to fund without placing intolerable burdens on workers, employers and taxpayers. By 2040, France would have seven pensioners for every 10 people in work.

The government has tried with some success to limit the protest movement to the more militant trade unions in the public sector.

The relatively lukewarm response to an indefinite strike called by rail unions yesterday will encourage M. Raffarin's hope that the protests will wind down as the summer holidays approach. But from the government's point of view there were two worrying signs. Even though the pension reform plan is relatively kind to the private sector (which has less generous retirement deals than those for state employees) the strikes spread to shops, banks and some car factories.

There were also discouraging new opinion polls. One showed that M. Raffarin had slipped below the 50 per cent level of popularity for the first time since he became Prime Minister a year ago.

Another showed that 65 per cent of people - despite the disruption of their daily lives - supported the strike movement as a defence of the country's social welfare status quo.

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