French Transportation Workers Strike Again

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French transit workers walk off the job to protest a pension reform plan put in place by President Sarkozy. The open-ended walkout is forcing residents of Paris and other French cities to find alternate ways to get to work. Gas and electricity workers are also off the job.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next to France, which for the second time in a couple of months, is dealing with a strike. Transport workers walked off the job to protest a pension reform plan put in place by the president, Nicolas Sarkozy. That's forcing residents of Paris and other cities to find alternate ways to work.

Reporter Eleanor Beardsley is at work now.

Eleanor, how'd you get to work?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Well, good morning, Steve. Well, actually, I didn't have a problem getting to work because sometimes I can work in an office out of my apartment. But where I did have a problem is my nanny couldn't get to work, because I have a one and a half-year-old baby and I can't really do anything until she comes. I just sent a taxi to pick her up that I had to book — early yesterday, and the taxi couldn't even get through. They called. There were so many traffic jams. Finally, somebody got through and she showed up, like, three hours late this morning. But it is difficult for everyone.

INSKEEP: Eleanor, we'll catch up on the strike here in a second. But how is the baby?

BEARDSLEY: The baby's doing very well. He's just having his lunch right now. So, Steve, thanks.

INSKEEP: Okay, I'll let you get back to that in a moment. But first tell me, what is at stake in this dispute, with Parisians now stuck all over the city, or riding bicycles?

BEARDSLEY: That's right. Well, you know, basically, Steve, what's at stake are the next five years of Sarkozy's presidency and the direction France is going to take. This reform is actually very symbolic. It doesn't involve a lot of money and it doesn't involve a lot of people, about 500,000 workers. But if he folds on this, if French President Nicolas Sarkozy folds on this, his charm is over.

Analysts are saying - well, basically go, he'll go from defeat to defeat. There will be no reforms getting through at all, and he'll be a paper tiger after only six months in office. However, if he holds and he pushes this one through, people - analysts are saying he'll be able to push other reforms through one by one, and then before we know it, France will be reforming, as you said he would do.

INSKEEP: Well, how effective is this strike that's meant to challenge him?

BEARDSLEY: Well, if its effectiveness is judged by creating - wreaking havoc in the French worker, it's very effective. They were 200 miles of traffic jams coming into Paris this morning. A lot of people left before dawn to get to work. I went out last night as the strike was coming into effect, went into the metro and talked to people, you know, asking them how they were going to cope. A lot of people were getting hotel rooms next to their offices.

You see a lot of people out on bikes, scooters, you know, a lot of mopeds and motorcycles, even rollerblades. So, you know, there's not very many - there's a couple or no metros, basically no commuter trains. And so it's very effective in that way.

INSKEEP: Well, which side is the public supporting since its being effective?

BEARDS: Right. Steve, that's what's interesting. Before I came out to see how things were outside, I watched a political talk show this morning where people could call in, and there was a union head on there. Well, the public reaction was stunning. I mean, the French usually sort of shrug their shoulders and deal with these things. Callers were calling in and they were so angry at this union head. They were saying, you know, you people are exasperating. We've democratically elected a government to change things. You can't just go out onto the streets.

And one thing they really seized upon was this - the (French spoken) or the union said their hardship works. This retired schoolteacher called in and she said I taught at a middle school for disadvantaged and troubled youths. You don't think my job was harder than, you know, repairing some train tracks. So the French don't accept these excuses anymore for them to have a better, you know, deal on retirement. And, you know, polls have showed seven out of ten voters are behind Sarkozy in this reform.

INSKEEP: What's changed?

BEARDSLEY: What's changed? Well, let me you what's changed in - people have been living, you know, for too long. Other European countries have reformed, and I think the French realized France has to reform too. Now, what's changed between these two strikes is the government and the unions have failed to come to any negotiations, and these strikes are open-ended. This means that it could go on for a long time. And people are nervous and they're angry, I think. They want to see a resolution to these strikes…

INSKEEP: Okay.

BEARDSLEY: …and one thing - we have a glimmer of hope because late last night, the unions agreed to come back to the negotiating table with the government. So, as we speak, they are negotiating. So there is hope that they'll find a quick solution. Otherwise, people are scared it's going to go into next week.

INSKEEP: Got to stop you there. Eleanor, thanks very much.

Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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Sarkozy's Clash with Unions Leaves France Idling

France slowed to a crawl on Wednesday as transit workers went on strike in a labor showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Paris commuters used children's scooters, skates and bikes to snake through some 200 miles of traffic during the morning rush hour as many other commuters drove to work.

Unions are protesting plans to boost the retirement age for 500,000 public-sector workers. It is the second transportation strike in less than a month in France.

The strike is viewed as a test of Sarkozy's campaign promise to make the country more competitive. Trimming some labor protections is one way he aims to prove France can be reformed.

Sarkozy wants everyone to retire after 40 years of service instead of the 37.5 years granted to employees in some sectors, including rail and utility workers, sewer workers, state bank employees and workers at the Paris Opera and the Comedie Francaise theater company.

He also wants universities to charge tuition and attract private funding.

That led to protests from university students Wednesday as well. They blocked some entrances to the renowned Sorbonne campus of the University of Paris, prompting tensions with rival students and professors trying to push their way into school.

"I find it abominable and above all absurd. It's a confused movement that's mixing everything," said Laurent Susini, a professor of French.

Analysts say if Sarkozy — in office just six months — holds up against the long-powerful trade unions, he'll be able to push through other reforms.

It may boil down to a test of wills. Workers for the national rail network and Paris public transport authority voted to extend their strike into Thursday. They are threatening an open-ended strike, with daily votes on whether to continue, as they try to hang on to special retirement benefits that Sarkozy wants reduced.

The strikes started Tuesday night when the rail authority stopped service on most of its lines. Many railroads around the country were empty Wednesday, with just 90 out of 700 trains running.

At subway stations and bus and tram stops, there were signs reading "No Service."

Gas and electricity workers also went on strike Wednesday, threatening targeted blackouts to illustrate their grievances over the retirement reform.

But opinion polls indicate that Sarkozy has most of the public on his side, as most agree with his arguments that the retirement rules are outdated, unfair and too costly.

Some commuters criticized, however, that Sarkozy was ramming through change.

"I agree with the reforms, but Sarkozy is going too quickly," said Vidal Madou, who expected to spend more than an hour to make the usual 30-minute trip to the construction materials store where he works.

Laurence Parisot, head of the main employers' association, Medef, called the strike embarrassing to France's global image. Parisot urged the French to "abandon this taste, which I think is a bit masochist, for conflict, for struggle."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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