NPR logo Sarkozy's Clash with Unions Leaves France Idling


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