Public sector strike tests Chirac's resolve

National shutdown: Unions challenge social security reforms

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

France today faces a nationwide shut-down of public services and transport as six of the country's seven major trade unions stage a 24-hour strike against government plans to reform the health and social security system. The strike comes three days after a national student protest brought more than 100,000 on to the streets and conjures up visions of a winter of discontent that could sorely test the resolve of President Jacques Chirac.

Early yesterday evening, air, sea and rail transport was already winding down across France. Today, no more than 20 per cent of services are guaranteed. Schools, hospitals, benefit offices, town halls, gas and electricity boards will all be affected, if not shut down altogether. There will be no national newspapers.

The strike was called last week after the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, set out sweeping measures to overhaul the social security system, including a new tax designed to pay off the system's accumulated debt and an end to some of the fiscal advantages enjoyed by public sector employees.

Although trade union membership in France is low by European standards, it is high in the public sector, and most forecasts suggested that today's strike would be well supported.

Workers, whether unionised or not, see their right to a full pension after 37.5 years (compared with 40 years in the private sector) and certain tax advantages threatened. Because average pay in the public sector is low, they fear that their living standards will be disproportionately affected by a new tax designed to pay off the social security system's debt as well as by the taxation of benefits.

Almost every branch of the public sector also has its own grievance. Railway workers are awaiting details of a deficit- cutting plan expected to reduce branch lines, and staff. Hospitals face spending limits; the airlines want productivity improvements. All face a pay freeze in 1996. The social security reforms are the final straw.

Union leaders have their own reason to fear the reforms. They currently sit on the joint council - with employers' and doctors' representatives - which manages the social security system. Mr Juppe's proposals would deprive them of much of this power, transferring to parliament the right to set the budget and oversee its spending.

Opposition to increased taxation and fear of any change, especially in something as cherished in France as the health and social security system, extends well beyond the public sector. An opinion poll published yesterday found that 54 per cent of those asked supported the strike, and 64 per cent would support a general strike.

All these considerations argue for a strong turnout today, but it may not be sustainable. Private sector employees and small business resent what many see as feather-bedding in the public sector.

Moreover, the unions themselves are divided. The second largest union, the FO (Force Ouvriere), which supported the public sector strike on 10 October, is not taking part in today's action, having called its own strike for next Tuesday. And Nicole Notat, the fiery leader of the largest union, the CFDT, is facing a revolt from her executive over her apparent acceptance - initially - of some of Mr Juppe's proposals.

The difficulty for President Chirac is to judge how far today's strike is a one-off expression of anger orchestrated by unions worried about their power and supported by a privileged section of workers, and how far it reflects a deeper - and more dangerous - public discontent.

The French connection

Nine of 12 London-Paris Eurostar trains are expected to run and 10 in the return direction. Although cross-Channel ferries could be disrupted, those operated by British companies should be unaffected. The Shuttle is unaffected, but there will be no Motorail services. Air France says long-haul flights will operate normally, but only 20 per cent of short-haul flights can be guaranteed. The internal Air Inter flights are expected to be badly hit. Disruption on the high-speed train network will be extensive. In Paris, only 20 per cent of tube trains and buses are expected to run.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
News
news

Lincoln MP Karl McCartney 'denied all knowledge' of the Twitter activity

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
Life and Style
View of champagne glasses at a beach bar set up along the Croisette during the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on May 17, 2013
food + drink(and for now, there's a clear winner)
News
The author PD James, who died on 27 November 2014
people

Detective novelist who wrote Death comes to Pemberley passed away peacefully at her home, aged 94

Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
arts + ents
Life and Style
tech

Sites using the popular Gigya comment platform were attacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA)

Extras
indybest
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: 2x Service Desk Analyst

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst Re...

Langley James : IT Project Manager; 6 month FTC; Brighton; £400p/d

£400 - £420 per day: Langley James : IT Project Manager; 6 month FTC; Brighton...

Langley James : Web Developer; PHP, MySQL, Java; Blackfriars; £25k

£25000 per annum + training: Langley James : Web Developer; PHP, MySQL, Java; ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

£40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?