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Sarkozy in showdown with unions over pension reform

The French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed not to give in to striking unions on Sunday.

world Updated: Nov 11, 2007 18:38 IST

The French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed not to give in to striking unions on Sunday, as the country braced for transport chaos during the coming week in a showdown over pensions reform.

For the second time in less than a month, railway and energy workers plan to down tools on Wednesday to demand the maintenance of "special" pensions systems, which the centre-right government has vowed to overhaul to bring in line with the rest of the country.

With seven out of eight unions at the state-owned SNCF calling for strike action, rail traffic is likely to be badly hit from Tuesday evening. Paris commuters will bear the brunt as staff at the RATP metro and bus operator also stop work.

And Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand warned that the disruption could extend for several days, as some unions have announced an open-ended strike -- rather than a 24-hour stoppage such as took place on October 18.

"Travellers should be ready for a strike that could last," he said.

In a tense social climate aggravated by other protests by students, lawyers and civil servants -- as well as fears over the rising cost of petrol -- there was speculation this week's strikes could trigger a mass movement of anti-government protest.

In 1995 a similar attempt to end the pensions privileges enjoyed by some 1.6 million people set off three weeks of strikes and demonstrations, culminating in a humiliating climb-down for then prime minister Alain Juppe.

But Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Sunday that the government could not abandon a promise that was clearly set out in Sarkozy's election manifesto in May and which polls show is supported by a majority of the population.

"Carrying out reforms in France is always hard. But I know that a majority of the French want the country to modernise .... No-one can claim not be be aware of what we planned to do. We announced it in the clearest possible way," Fillon told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

France's 16 category-based "special" pensions systems are enjoyed by railway and metro staff, workers at energy suppliers EDF and GDF, as well as fishermen, miners, parliamentarians and singers at the state opera.

Invoking social equity, Sarkozy has begun moves to lengthen contribution periods for these workers from 37.5 years to 40, closer in line with other public and sector employees. Currently some railway workers can retire on a full pension at the age of 50.

Some 500,000 workers currently pay into the "special" systems but there are 1.1 million drawing pensions, and this has led to an annual shortfall of five billion euros (seven billion dollars) borne by the taxpayer.

Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful General Labour Confederation (CGT) union, accused the government of seeking a confrontation in order to weaken for good opposition from workers to its wider programme of reform.

"I am convinced the government wants conflict in order to create an example ... The future of the 'special regimes' does not justify the dramatisation which the government is orchestrating. Workers have become hostages for the president's need to show off a success," he said.

Wednesday's demonstrations will be joined by students who are disrupting studies at some 13 universities in a protest over a recently-passed university reform law. In addition lawyers and magistrates are up in arms over plans by Justice Minister Rachida Dati to re-organise local courts.

And on November 20 unions representing civil servants have announced a strike against government plans to reduce the state pay-roll.