French president Nicolas Sarkozy insisted in the face of widening strikes today that France needs reform, saying: “We will not surrender and we will not retreat.”
Mr Sarkozy defiantly said French voters gave him a mandate to carry out economic reforms when they elected him in May and he urged strikers to return to work.
He said: “France needs reforms to meet the challenges imposed on it by the world. I will not betray the trust of those who elected me.”
The president reiterated his determination to press ahead with the pension reform that prompted union leaders to call their open-ended strike – but he also suggested that he is not looking to crush unions in the reform process.
“I do not want a winner and loser,” Mr Sarkozy said.
Schools closed, flights were delayed, trains were not running and newspapers were not printed today as civil servants joined transport workers in strikes to challenge Mr Sarkozy’s programme to reform France.
But the walkouts looked increasingly like the last gasp of a protest movement that started with train drivers but seemed to be losing punch after a week of major travel disruptions.
Talks with transport unions are to start tomorrow and the government said it would take part.
Today marked the seventh full day of the transport strikes against pension reforms.
Hundreds of thousands of civil servants – teachers, customs agents, tax inspectors – also stayed off the job today to press for pay hikes and job security.
Mr Sarkozy has promised to slim down and reform the civil service, France’s largest employer, with more than five million workers.
Although civil servants and transport workers have different demands, together their protests presented the biggest test yet of MrSarkozy’s determination to revamp France with reforms and cost-cutting.
More than 300,000 teachers – or nearly 40% of the total – were on strike today, the Education Ministry said, forcing some schools to close. Postal services were also affected.
National newspapers were absent from kiosks as printers and distributors jumped on the strike bandwagon. Strike-hit France-Inter radio broadcast music and a message of apology instead of its regular programming.
National weather service Meteo France, which has 3,700 employees, said a third of its staff who were scheduled to work today were on strike, but weather forecasts were not affected.
Thousands joined protest marches in Paris and other cities. The Paris demo had a picnic atmosphere, with music, roasted sausages and balloons marked “Public Service is a Public Good”. The demonstrators were marching across the Left Bank to the gold-domed monument at Les Invalides, the site of Napoleon’s tomb.
About one employee in seven at France’s main energy utilities, Electricite de France and Gaz de France, was on strike, the companies said.
Striking air traffic controllers caused delays averaging 45 minutes at Paris’s two airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, affecting a variety of flights, from short domestic routes to long-haul.
Despite the pressure on Mr Sarkozy, the government has stood firm. Prime minister Francois Fillon said yesterday that reforms must move forward.
The transport strike has caused massive disruption on the national rail network and on Paris’s Metro and commuter lines.
Train drivers are protesting against Mr Sarkozy’s plans to extend their retirement age. The government has insisted that for talks to start, unions must move toward a return to work. It also says the core of the reform – that all workers must work for 40 years to qualify for full pensions – is non-negotiable.
Mr Sarkozy has often jumped into trouble spots to fix them himself but until now has remained curiously silent about the strikes, perhaps to avoid stoking the protesters’ determination.
He was elected on promises to reform France – from its courts to its creaking university system, its army of civil servants to rail workers whose special retirement privileges he vowed to eliminate.
Campuses are also bubbling with discontent. Knots of students have been blocking classes at dozens of France’s 85 state-run universities to protest against a law allowing them to seek non-government funding.
Critics fear the change will mean schools closing their doors to the poor and scrapping classes that cannot attract private funding.