State employees bring France to a halt over pension reforms

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The Independent Online

Four out of five flights to and from France will be cancelled today when public-sector workers go on strike against plans to reform the country's pension system.

Four out of five flights to and from France will be cancelled today when public-sector workers go on strike against plans to reform the country's pension system.

Many long-distance trains and most underground and bus services in all major cities will be brought to a standstill. Eurostar rail services between Paris, Brussels and London Waterloo are expected to run normally.

The strike, the second in a series of protests that could shake the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin, will reduce the French air traffic system to a skeleton service. Thousands of schools will close and medical services will be severely reduced.

M. Raffarin has made it clear that he regards the reform of the tottering pensions system as important for his plans to shrink the French state and revitalise a limping French economy. He announced last week that all state budgets would be frozen next year and many job vacancies in the public sector would not be filled.

His declarations have reinforced the determination of some unions to turn today's strike and marches through cities into the kind of confrontation which defeated an attempt at pension reform by the last centre-right government in 1995. Opinion polls suggest, however, that – unlike last time – there is now a widespread acceptance in France that the pensions system must be rebuilt.

The present arrangement, highly beneficial to state employees, faces collapse by 2020. Public-sector workers make smaller contributions, over a shorter time, and receive larger pensions than workers in the private sector.

M. Raffarin has suggested that the state employees' advantages must be reduced by 2008 before the entire system is overhauled. Unions say the whole system should be aligned on the generous arrangements for the public sector.

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