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French workers take to streets

Despite paralyzing strikes, President Sarkozy says he will move ahead with economic reforms.

Protesting current wage scales and threatened layoffs, hundreds of thousands of French civil servants joined striking transport and energy workers Tuesday in a one-day walkout that disrupted public schools, hospitals, airports, post offices, and other services across the country.

About 30 percent of the country's 5.2 million public-sector workforce was participating in the work stoppage, which came on the seventh day of a walkout by train and bus operators and on the same day as the third 24-hour strike by utility workers. Causing further chaos, students walked out of classes at dozens of the nation's state-run universities.

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Despite the massive disruptions, President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to continue pursuing his economic reforms.

"This clean break I promised to the French during the election campaign. The French approved it," Sarkozy told a conference of mayors. "We will not surrender and we will not retreat."

The transportation and energy strikes are a response to his proposal to eliminate special pension privileges that allow employees in certain jobs to retire 2-1/2 years earlier than most others in the public sector. Sarkozy wishes to align pension plans, requiring all employees to work 40 years to qualify for full pensions.

For their part, striking teachers and civil servants are demanding greater job security and higher pay. Unions representing state employees say their mmembers' spending power has fallen by 6 percent since 2000.

The civil service is France's largest employer, and Sarkozy plans to cut 23,000 jobs in 2008 -- half of them in education -- through attrition.

Students also joined the walkouts, protesting a government reform that allows state-run universities to seek private funding.

Groups of demonstrators took to the streets of Paris, Rouen, Marseilles, Grenoble, Lyon, Nice, and other cities.

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Budget Minister Eric Woerth estimated that the strikes were costing the economy between $440 million and $586 million a day.

"When you decide not to work, when you prevent goods from circulating in a certain way, when you prevent people from getting to places, obviously that can be a problem," Woerth told French radio.

Material from wire services was used in this report.