Sarkozy Outlines Plans for Economic Overhaul

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's blunt speech to the Senate criticizes provisions in the French pensions system and attacks the 35-hour work week. He seems headed for a confrontation with French unions.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he wants to shake up the French economy. And in a long speech to the French Senate today, he tackled some of the toughest issues. His main target was the pension system, which he called unfair. But Sarkozy also criticized the 35-hour workweek and said the French will have to work harder to maintain their social system.

Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: He was supposed to address pension reform, but Sarkozy used his hour-long speech at the French Senate to launch an attack against France's entire economic and social welfare system, which he called unfair and financially unsustainable.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through translator) The first principle is to put work back at the heart of our social policies once and for all. I was elected to do that and I'm going to keep my promise. No social model is sustainable if we forget the fact that work is the only way to create wealth.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy also attacked the 35-hour workweek, but was careful not to offend the many French people who consider the measure social progress. He lauded France's prized health care system and way of life but he said the country needed to work harder to sustain it.

Pres. SARKOZY: (Through translator) It is absolutely essential that we simplify the 35-hour workweek. We must allow employees to have the choice to earn money rather than take vacation time.

BEARDSLEY: When Sarkozy did talk about changing the pension system, he focused on the special privileges of about half a million French workers like employees of the state railway, Paris metro operators, and people employed by the national power company. Sarkozy said it was unfair that they have special retirement privileges that allow them to call it quits years before the rest of the population and retire with final salary pensions.

(Soundbite of protesters)

BEARDSLEY: In 1995, a proposed major overhaul of pensions met with widespread opposition and the government was forced to back down after massive strikes and street protests. But since then, smaller changes in pension laws have left most French people working longer to reach retirement, and resentment toward those with so-called special regime pensions has grown.

Bruno Jeanbart, who is with the political polling organization OpinionWay, says this time around, 75 percent of the French people agree with the pension changes and Sarkozy will be able to push his policy through.

Mr. BRUNO JEANBART (Political analyst, OpinionWay): Because Sarkozy has said that issue was a victory, he would reform these pension systems. And so that gives him the legitimacy to do it now.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has also been careful not to provoke the unions' ire. He said all along that he will include them in reform talks. This time around, unions know they're fighting a losing battle on the pensions front. But Jeanbart says there will likely be strikes this fall as labor leaders try to limit their losses on other fronts.

Francois Chereque is head of one of the biggest French unions.

Mr. FRANCOIS CHEREQUE (Head, National Confederation for Democracy and Labor): (Through translator) It will be impossible to do these reforms on his timetable. You simply can't enact five major social reforms at once in France. Doing too much too fast means he will botch the job completely.

BEARDSLEY: As Sarkozy finished his speech on economic reform in the Senate, another one of his reform promises was being discussed in the Lower House of Parliament - a new tougher immigration bill includes a controversial measure to provide voluntary DNA testing to immigrants who want to join a family member in France.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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