Sarkozy pension initiative provokes rail strike threat

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The Independent Online

French rail unions are planning to strike next month against a pensions reform suggested by one of the leading candidates in next year's presidential elections.

The "pre-emptive strike" - or industrial action against a proposal not yet made - has become a regular weapon in the armoury of unions in the French state sector in recent years. This is the first time, however, that unions have threatened to strike to influence a political campaign.

The issue at stake is a deeply sensitive one: the retirement and pension advantages enjoyed by railwaymen, state utility workers, and some other sectors of the work-force, including farmers, soldiers and MPs.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister and the almost-certain candidate of the centre-right in the elections next April and May, said this week that he would reform these so-called "special pension regimes".

Railway drivers are permitted to retire at 50 and many other workers at 55. Up to six million people, including farmers, sailors and forestry workers, qualify for a full pension after 37.5 years, instead of 40 years for most workers.

The supposedly separate fund to pay for the priv-ileged categories has to be topped up from other workers' general taxes.

M. Sarkozy said that such "blatant unfairness" was no longer sustainable. He promised that, if elected President, he would try to negotiate reforms.

His comments were disowned by the government, anxious to avoid social unrest in what remains of President Jacques Chirac's term of office. However, three of the more militant railway sections of the trades union federations, the FO, CGT and SUD, said they would call on railwaymen to strike next month.