Friday, May 23, 2008

French pension strike sparks numbers battle

During previous transport strikes, the congestion on Parisian streets has often forced those on bikes onto the pavements.

Thursday's day of action brought few such problems for this two-wheeled commuter.
There was chaos and confusion at one road junction, but it was caused by a malfunctioning traffic light.

The French capital did experience disruption, but it was relatively light. Many people anticipated it, and either stayed at home or staggered their travel plans.

The metro ran almost as usual. Suburban trains were fewer than usual but the service was still operating.

The problems were worse in other cities such as Lyon, Strasbourg and Marseille - where dockers angry at privatisation plans joined demonstrators protesting against the government's pension reforms.

The state railway company SNCF said slightly more than half of trains - and two out of three high-speed TGVs - were running. For the second time, a law guaranteeing a minimum service during strikes was in effect.

Show of unity
But this protest was not about bringing France to a standstill. It was about mobilising opinion against the government. For the unions, what mattered was not how many trains were cancelled, but how many bodies they could get out to join protest rallies.

You can't just ask people to work longer, while on the other hand companies don't want to employ older workers Paul Quinio, Liberation

The "war of figures", as one radio station put it, was declared. The government estimated that 15.6% of civil servants had gone on strike by midday - compared to 41.3% during last week's day of action.

The large CGT union - which had said that it would be "disappointing" if fewer than half a million people went onto the streets - calculated that 700,000 had turned out.

It said 70,000 joined the main demo in Paris - only 28,000, said the police. The union said 25,000 turned out in Bordeaux - only 8,000 according to the authorities. In Marseille, the number of protesters was 60,000, according to the unions, rather more than the official estimate of 8,200.

"The ball is in the government's court," said the CGT leader Bernard Thibault. But France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon has batted it away.

The central issue - raising the number of years worked from 40 to 41 to get a full pension - had been "settled" in the pension reforms of 2003, he said.

Other unions, such as the moderate CFDT, have accepted the change in principle.
But they argue that the government has failed to fulfil its part of the bargain - to do more to help older workers.

Gaining momentum
France wants people to stay in work longer and contribute more to their pension plans. But for years the country has been promoting and practising the exact opposite.

Fewer than four in 10 55-64 year-olds are in work in France, well below the EU average of almost 45%. Their relatively short working life makes it almost impossible to earn a full pension.
Some commentators blame all sides for embracing a culture of early retirement.

"The government was OK with that, the unions were OK and the workers as well," says Paul Quinio, political editor for the newspaper Liberation.

"Now you can't just ask people to work longer, while on the other hand companies don't want to employ older workers - there's a contradiction," he added.

France has seen several other protests over the past week, an indication that opposition to President Sarkozy's overall reform programme might be gaining momentum.

Students and teachers rallied against job cuts. Dockers have blocked ports over privatisation plans. Fishermen protesting over high fuel prices tossed flares at riot police in Paris.

Other scenes in the French capital have been more peaceful. A few hundred yards from the French National Assembly, a group of middle-aged men were playing petanque among the trees, blissfully unaware of the riot vans not far away.

Some are already retired, like no doubt the white-haired fisherman whose sudden catch up at the Ourcq canal drew a round of applause from a group of students. A boat went past slowly, the small party on the deck enjoying the spring sunshine.

The government would have more people of a similar age remain in work for longer to fund their pensions. But in a country where leisure is valued so highly, perhaps it is not surprising that encouraging older employees to embrace the work ethic is proving to be a difficult message to sell.

Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7415789.stm

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