Towns across France blacked out by strikes

French electricity and gas workers went on strike yesterday, blacking out the street-lighting in Lille and other towns and pelting their Paris headquarters with light bulbs to protest against plans to "privatise" the industry.

The government insisted that no such sell-off plans existed and that the state might even increase its 51 per cent stake in the power utilities as a result of restructuring plans. Nonetheless, more than half of the country's 300,000 power workers went on strike to demand the withdrawal of plans announced on Wednesday to change the legal status of Electricité de France (EDF) and Gas de France (GDF) to limited companies.

The dispute is a foretaste of the street battles that will probably confront the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin as it tries to push ahead with economic and social reforms despite catastrophic losses in regional elections two weeks ago. It is, in particular, a baptism of fire for the new Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

M. Sarkozy, who has ambitions to replace President Jacques Chirac as the leader of the French centre-right, is said to have been dismayed by the figures that he found when he moved to the ministry last week.

France has promised to bring its budget deficit within the EU limit of 3 per cent of GDP by next year. Figures leaked to the newspaper Le Monde suggest that, without swingeing spending cuts or a rapid upturn in the economy, the figure will be 4 per cent, the same as this year. The unions suspect that M. Sarkozy is considering desperate measures. M. Sarkozy told the National Assembly on Wednesday: "There will be no privatisation of EDF and GDF, now or in the future." He insisted that the change in status was necessary to allow the utilities to prepare for the Europe-wide, open competition between electricity suppliers that takes effect in 2007.

Unions rejected his assurances and called a day of snap strikes and demonstrations yesterday. Bernard Thibault, secretary general of the CGT union federation, said the government "needed to sell the family jewels" to reduce the budget deficit. Despite M. Sarkozy's promises, he said, it was plain that the change in the companies' legal status was intended as first step towards floating the power utilities on the stock market.

There were protest marches in Toulouse, Marseilles and Lille. In Paris, power workers blocked the Rue de Rivoli with trucks and pelted the headquarters of EDF and the Conseil d'Etat (the government watchdog) with used light bulbs. On Wednesday night they removed the master fuses for street lighting in Lille, Roubaix and other northern towns. They ceremonially returned the fuses yesterday afternoon.

Since the industry was privatised in Britain in 1990, the average household electricity bill has fallen by about 30 per cent in real terms, the industry says. The price in Britain is on average 40 per cent cheaper than in France, studies indicate.

* About 40,000 passengers were evacuated last night from line "A" of the RER underground railway in Paris after a CIA terrorist alert that proved to be a false alarm. An anonymous e-mail from Madrid was received at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, warning of a bomb attack between 8.30pm and 9.30pm local time.

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