French Workers Mobilize Strike

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French civil servants, from teachers to air traffic controllers, begin a mass walkout in sympathy with the transport strike now in its seventh day. The strikes are a serious challenge to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans for economic reform.


The transportation strike in France that began last week has widened. Today, teachers, postal workers, hospital employees and airport personnel walked off the job. This one-day walkout is a separate protest over salaries and job cuts, but it's a further headache for the French people and for their president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

We're joined now by reporter Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.



MONTAGNE: Sort of stuck in one spot, I guess, talking to us there. Explain how this job action is different from the main transport workers strike.

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, this is what is known in France as strike season. So a lot of times when there are disgruntled workers, they come out this time of the year. It is a completely different action. It's about five million civil servants. But what it means is the schools are closed, some of the hospitals are half staff, air traffic is disrupted. The weathermen aren't even giving the weather on TV. There's no newspaper delivery. I didn't have my newspaper this morning. And this has now converged with the seventh day of a transport strike, so you just feel that nothing is working in France.

MONTAGNE: It sounds pretty widespread, but you're in Paris. Is it all over the country?

BEARDSLEY: It is all over the country, but it's particularly hard in Paris, where about five million commuters use the public transport, and everyone is, you know, living in a densely populated area. So it's really felt acutely in Paris, although it is felt in other cities all around the nation. And it's nationwide, yes.

MONTAGNE: Now, what is the position of the Sarkozy government as these workers' protests continue and even widen?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Sarkozy came in. He says he has a mandate to reform. Now, the government is a little bit dismayed because they did not expect these two labor movements to converge today. They thought that the transport strike would be over by the time the civil servants took to the streets. So they're calling it Black Tuesday. It is a hard day for Sarkozy. He's being challenged on every front. But the government has said it is going to stand by its reforms. It will not back down. Sarkozy, for the first time, he's taking a low profile. This is the Energizer Bunny president who's everywhere, but we haven't heard from him in a week. He's letting his primer minister sort of be the fall guy and take the hits from all this. But it is a black day for Sarkozy's government, but everyone is waiting to see if he will be able to stand up to the pressure.

MONTAGNE: Are there any negotiations underway between the government and the unions?

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. There are negotiations that will start tomorrow, and the government has agreed to some of the unions' conditions for negotiating, so there's a lot of hope pinned on these negotiations. And in fact, there's only 18 percent of the rail movement still striking. Most of the unions have voted to stop.

But there is a worry that the 18 percent - these are radical unions, and people are saying that, you know, there's two rounds in the French election. People are saying that these union workers they want revenge on Sarkozy and they're going to hold their third round of the French presidential election out in the street. So they're going to try to cause him as much pain and trouble as they can. So that's a bit of a worry.

MONTAGNE: So, Eleanor, this one-day strike, it will be over tomorrow and you will get your newspaper. But in terms of the larger transportation workers strike, how might it end? Will the transportation workers get any of what they want? Will Sarkozy break the strike?

BEARDSLEY: Well, how will this all end? That's a good question. The teachers and the air traffic controllers will go back to work tomorrow. Theirs was just a 24 hour walkout. But the big question is, when will the trains start running again? The French commuter has really had enough. The French economy is losing about $700 million a day, and people want things just to go back to normal. They want to get back to work. There's a lot of hopes being pinned on these talks that start tomorrow between the government and the unions, but there is a fear with the radicalization of this movement that some of those rail strikers are not going to give up. They say they don't want to work longer to have their pensions. At the same time, Sarkozy has said he will not back down on his pension reform.

So some analysts are saying that this strike could last through the end of the this week and that things could get uglier before they actually get better.

MONTAGNE: Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Eleanor Beardsley speaking from Paris.

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