Thursday, September 9, 2010

NEWS: French unions launch strike over plans to raise retirement age

by Jean-Marie Godard, originally posted September 6, 2010 @ ChicagoTribune.com


PARIS (AP) — French train traffic began tapering off Monday at the start of what promises to be a major strike over unpopular conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The strike took effect gradually on the state-run train network starting at 8 p.m. (1800 local time). But the big disruptions were expected Tuesday, with protesters taking to the streets and the work stoppage spreading to airports and public transport.

Civil aviation authorities asked airlines to cut a quarter of their flights at Paris' airports Tuesday. Only two out of five fast trains are to run, and traffic will be slowed on Paris' subway and suburban transport lines.

The strike coincides with the start of debate in parliament over a plan to overhaul the money-losing pension system so it will break even in 2018. The government insists the reform is essential as people live longer, and it has urged people to show "courage" as it tries to chip away at the huge national debt.

Unions say the government is attacking one of France's most cherished social protections — though a retirement age of 62 would still be among the lowest in Europe. Neighboring Germany, for example, has decided to bump up the retirement age from 65 to 67.

About 200 street demonstrations are planned Tuesday throughout France, including in Paris. Unions hope to mobilize 2 million people at a time when Sarkozy's approval ratings hover in the mid-30 percent range. A similar effort June 24 drew nearly 800,000.

Labor Minister Eric Woerth has said the government will press ahead with the reform no matter how strong the protest turnout is. Leftist political parties, as well as students associations, have urged members to join in.

The SNCF rail network says travelers can expect 40 percent of TGV fast trains to run, and 80 percent of Thalys trains to Belgium and the Netherlands will not be affected. Eurostar trains to Britain are expected to run normally.

Traffic will vary on the Paris subway, with only one out of two or one out of three trains operating on many lines, the RATP transport authority said. Three buses out of four are expected to circulate. Some RER suburban trains will be hard-hit: There will be almost no traffic on the RER B line that air travelers take to and from the city, for example.

Some teachers were also joining in to protest the government's education policies, getting a head start Monday. The Education Ministry said more than 5 percent of junior high and high school teachers stayed off the job, while the SNES union put the figure at 30 percent.