Power struggle as French unions stage series of nationwide blackouts

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Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious French Finance Minister, found himself embroiled in a power struggle yesterday that he would probably prefer to avoid.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious French Finance Minister, found himself embroiled in a power struggle yesterday that he would probably prefer to avoid.

Unions in the power industry organised politically targeted blackouts and demonstrations across the country to protest against what they claim are stealthy plans to "privatise" the state-owned electricity and gas companies, EDF and GDF.

M. Sarkozy, who wants to replace President Jacques Chirac as the leader of the French centre-right, insists no such plan exists.

Proposals put before parliament yesterday would make EDF and GDF into limited companies and ultimately open them to private investment, prompting unions to mount raucous protest marches and encourage targeted blackouts of the constituencies, and even the homes, of politicians. There were also "symbolic" power cuts, such as at a Phillips factory in Nancy in eastern France which makes light bulbs and street lights.

For M. Sarkozy, the dispute has become a test of personal prestige and skill. He says the change in the public utilities' status is needed to allow EDF, in particular, to respond to the more open market in power supply in the European Union. He has pledged that state holdings in the two utilities will not fall below 70 per cent and may actually increase.

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