France braced for crippling strikes

Nicolas Sarkozy is facing the first real challenge to his presidency tonight when unions begin a one-day strike expected to leave France without public transport.

Nicolas Sarkozy is facing the first real challenge to his presidency tonight when unions begin a one-day strike expected to leave France without public transport.

High-speed TGV trains – including the Eurostar route between Paris and London - will also be affected.

Union leaders hoped the walkout would be a show of unity unseen since strikes in 1995, during Jacques Chirac’s presidency, that paralysed the country and sapped Chirac’s appetite for reform.

Transport workers initiated the strikes but employees of state-run electricity, gas and other services also could take part in the action, due to begin at 8pm local time (7pm Irish Time) and continue through tomorrow.

After months in the shadow of the powerful and popular president, unions were mounting the strikes as a cry of anger and an alert to the government as it seeks to reinvigorate the economy through changes to employment laws.

The day of strikes is a protest against plans to cut back on special retirement benefits for public service employees in businesses such as transport companies.

Sarkozy, who pledged changes to France’s employment protections during his election campaign this spring, deems the benefits too costly, outdated and unfair.

“I think this strike will be strong ... and I even have the feeling that there may be virtually no trains, buses or Metros,” labour minister Xavier Bertrand said during a weekend media forum.

Still, he added, he remained “totally determined” to see through the changes - “in a spirit of dialogue”.

Sarkozy said he was unfazed by the strike threat.

“People would be more worried if we didn’t carry out the reforms,” he said yesterday. “That’s what I was elected for.”

Most unions at the national SNCF train authority and Paris’ RATP transport authority are taking part in the strikes.

The Eurostar will run eight trains in 10, the SNCF said, warning that nationwide traffic would be “nearly paralysed”.

The RATP warned of “very serious disturbances” tomorrow of Metros, buses, suburban trains and tramways.

Repercussions from the transportation tangle were expected to be felt across the French economy.

Most teachers were not planning to strike, but some schools were expected to close for fear that staff would not be able to get to class.

Air travel also faced potential disturbances, according to civil aviation authorities, who said there was a risk that flights would be “modified”, particularly early in the day.

Aviation administrative employees and airport personnel could have trouble getting to work, the civil aviation authority said.

Sarkozy is looking to trim special retirement packages for chosen groups of workers – more than half a million workers plus 1.1 million current pensioners.

Train and bus workers, for instance, can retire with a state pension at 50. Such special privileges date from the Second World War and earlier, when some sectors were considered dangerous or vital to France’s interests.

The strikes could overflow into Friday, with three train federations calling for a daily vote to see whether to extend the strikes.

It was not the only front in Sarkozy’s reform battle.

Hospital interns and doctors completing residencies have been striking overnight and on-call duties since September 27 to protest at plans to outlaw new medical offices in large cities in favour of regions where doctors are less numerous.

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