French Unions Strike, Protesting Pension Changes

Drivers and cyclists are stuck in traffic jams in Paris on Wednesday. i i

Drivers and cyclists are stuck in traffic jams in Paris on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007, the first day of a strike by transport, utility and other public-sector unions. Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images
Drivers and cyclists are stuck in traffic jams in Paris on Wednesday.

Drivers and cyclists are stuck in traffic jams in Paris on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007, the first day of a strike by transport, utility and other public-sector unions.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images
Several thousand people participate in a pro-union demonstration in Paris on Nov. 14, 2007. i i

Several thousand people participate in a pro-union demonstration in Paris on Wednesday during the nationwide strike. Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images
Several thousand people participate in a pro-union demonstration in Paris on Nov. 14, 2007.

Several thousand people participate in a pro-union demonstration in Paris on Wednesday during the nationwide strike.

Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

French transportation and utility workers went on strike and took to the streets of Paris on Wednesday, the second time in the past month that the unions have staged a massive walkout across the country.

They are protesting President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to end the special retirement deal enjoyed by many public-sector workers. Power and gas supplies were affected by Wednesday's action, but the biggest impact was on public transportation.

Paris was again snarled in traffic as commuters tried to make their way to work without train, bus or metro service. Some Parisians spent the night in their offices, others turned to bikes, scooters and even rollerblades to get to work.

There were some 200 miles of traffic jams around the French capital during the morning rush hour. Elsewhere in the city, the streets were jammed with demonstrating workers.

Workers at a march in the Montparnasse district say they took poorly paid, often difficult jobs on the promise of early retirement. Half a million public employees are allowed to retire early, after 37 1/2 years of employment. They want to keep those special pensions, but now the government is going back on that deal.

The marchers say it is unjust that Sarkozy is picking on a few poorly paid utility workers when the country is full of corporations and CEOs rolling in profits. They note that the French president recently tripled his own salary.

Some of the protesters say the French people still support the strikers, but that the media is trying to divide the country.

In the past, the French public has tolerated such strikes and even shown solidarity with the workers. But there's clearly exasperation this time around. The majority of callers to radio and TV talk shows Wednesday said they'd had enough, and opinion polls say seven out of 10 French voters think the strikers are wrong.

Sarkozy is counting on that kind of public feeling to push through his economic reforms — starting with the special pensions. Christophe Barbier, editor of L'Express magazine, says Sarkozy has staked his presidency on this fight.

"If Sarkozy doesn't hold out on this one, his term is basically over after just six months in office," Barbier says. "He has built himself up as the leader with the force to break with the past. And if that all ends on this small but very symbolic issue, Sarkozy will be reduced to a paper tiger."

There was sign of progress in talks between the government and unions that were taking place even as the strikers took to the streets Wednesday. But with no firm agreement in sight, union leaders called on the workers to continue the strike into Thursday.

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