Strikers are taking France hostage

Hundreds of thousands of public employees, joined by students and striking railway workers, took part in raucous demonstrations across France yesterday to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans for state sector job cuts and other economic reforms.

President Sarkozy, facing the most concerted protests since his election six months ago, made a defiant speech last night, insisting that he would not back down and accusing a minority of railway and Paris transport workers of “taking France hostage”. However, he also attempted to appease more moderate protesters by promising “initiatives” in the next few days to “boost purchasing power”.

The future of the broad but internally divided protest movement will be shaped by talks today between the Government, employers and transport unions. The disruptive rail and Paris transport strike over early retirement rights entered its eighth day last night. The government believes the disparate grievances of students and public sector employees can be contained if the transport strike ends.

The great majority of railwaymen and Paris transport workers have already abandoned the strike. A hard core – including many Métro train drivers – has refused to return to work unless President Sarkozy withdraws or substantially weakens his plans to remove their rights to early retirement. There are hints that some union leaders are prepared to shift their ground and discuss a compensation package offered by the government today. But many strikers, and the most radical union leaders, insist that they will continue the strike until their early retirements rights are guaranteed.

Public sector employees – including teachers, air-traffic controllers, nurses postmen, street cleaners, refuse collectors and junior civil servants – were among those who staged a one-day stoppage yesterday in protest against plans for cuts in public sector jobs and the erosion of their standard of living by seven years of low pay rises. The eight trades union federations claimed that about half the 2.5 million state sector workers had joined the strike; the government said that it was more like one in three.

An estimated 700,000 people joined noisy, exuberant marches in Paris and many other large cities. The Paris march, through the Left Bank from Place d’Italie to Invalides, was festooned with banners and placards mocking M. Sarkozy and his recent marital problems. “Sarko everywhere, love nowhere,” said one banner. Another read: “Sarkozy and France: we too want a divorce.”

The rallies were supposed to demonstrate worker solidarity, but the transport dispute in particular is as much a multi-layered battle between union factions as a straight fight between unions and government.

François Chérèque, the leader of the moderate CFDT – the largest of the eight, competing trades union federations – was booed and threatened when he joined the Paris march.

M. Chérèque has called for compromise on the transport strike and has attacked attempts by union federations aligned to the far-left to merge specific grievances into a political uprising. He argues that the government is not vulnerable on the transport dispute since most French people agree with M. Sarkozy. He suggests, however, that the centre-right President is extremely vulnerable on cost of living and pay.

Purchasing power has fallen in the past six months and M. Sarkozy recognises that he is politically weak on this point. He is expected to make a television address this week, possibly tomorrow, to restate his determination to press ahead with his state sector employee reforms. But he is also likely to promise tax cuts for those on modest pay, including a tax break on the “13th” month of salary paid to some employees before Christmas.

Yesterday’s front page on the French strikes prompted a passionate debate on The Independent’s website, with readers more or less equally divided for and against the protests. NorrisLockley, who lives “parallel lives” in France and Yorkshire, says there is “no comparison in the quality of life and services, with life in France winning hands down”. Nicolas Sarkozy’s attack on the French social care model sticks in French throats, he says.

Patty, from the US, says: “The world, and alas France, is changing. To be competitive in this global economy the workers must be realistic and realise that their lives will change.”

Briar says: “Bravo to the French. They are a truly democratic country with people prepared to take effective, non-violent action. So much less cringing and indolent than the English, desperate to appear moderate and middle class.”

Ronp123r asks: “Were the rail employees who blocked the train lines (and risked a catastrophic train crash) immediately arrested for attempted murder? No? Well, that’s problem number one.”

John Mullen says: “As usual, John Lichfield is witty… and pro-Sarkozy. But take a wider picture – look at the statistics for pensioner poverty in Britain and in France, and you will see that the strikers are absolutely right. It is because of the different strikes over pensions (victory in 1995, compromise in 2003) that pensioner poverty is much lower in France.”

Mathieu Chabert, a French Erasmus (EU exchange) student in Manchester, is depressed by the strikes – even though he voted against President Sarkozy. “Not only are unions not representatives of the majority of French population, but this reform is definitely necessary for us. First of all, early retirement privileges were established at the beginning of the century for workers with a difficult and hard job. Nowadays, this situation is unacceptable… We have to reform this unfair situation to help people who are in need”.

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