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Strikes put pressure on French government

October 4, 2005

By Timothy Heritage

PARIS (Reuters) – A one-day strike disrupted public
transport in France on Tuesday in protest at high unemployment
and low purchasing power, putting pressure on the conservative
government over its labor and economic policies.

The size of the protests called by all of France’s main
trade unions will gauge public sentiment toward Prime Minister
Dominique de Villepin after fours months in power, and test the
unions’ ability to bring workers out to challenge policy.

Commuters faced delays at railway stations and
cancellations at airports, but many trains, buses and subway
services were still running and fears of chaos appeared
ill-founded. Some Parisians, used to such labor unrest, simply
stayed at home.

“There are fewer people than usual. Most of my team have
taken the day off,” said Kathy, a woman arriving at Paris’ St
Lazare train station. “The strikers are right but it does cause
some problems.”

Some international flights and many domestic flights were
canceled at Paris airports and passengers faced delays of up to
90 minutes on some domestic flights, officials said.

High-speed international trains were running on time but
rail traffic in France was cut by about half or two-thirds,
rail officials said. Many cities faced transport problems and
150 protest marches were planned across the country.

“It’s about as expected. I hope it stays that way and gets
no worse, and we’ll see how it is (for going home) tonight,”
said Xavier, a commuter at St Lazare station.

Strikes by energy workers reduced power production, but no
power cuts were expected for consumers. Many schools were
expected to remain shut because of the absence of staff such as
teachers and canteen workers.

GROWING PROBLEMS FOR VILLEPIN

Villepin, 51, has enjoyed a surge in popularity since he
was appointed by President Jacques Chirac on May 31 to revive
the government’s fortunes after French voters embarrassed it by
rejecting the European Union’s constitution.

But the former foreign minister, who opposed the U.S.-led
invasion of Iraq in 2003, faces growing problems.

Almost three in four French people supported the day of
protests, according to an opinion poll, pointing to the
difficulties Villepin faces trying to restore public confidence
before presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007.

Strikes are watched nervously by governments in France
because street protests in 1995 are seen as having been
responsible for the defeat of conservative Prime Minister Alain
Juppe in snap elections two years later.

The government says the worst is behind the economy but
many French people believe salaries and purchasing power are
too low and unemployment too high at 9.9 percent of the
workforce.

Unions oppose labor reforms which they say make it easier
to dismiss new employees, and many economists doubt the
government’s forecast of 2.25 percent growth in 2006.

The unions threatened to flex their muscles again if
Villepin did not respond to their demands.

“All the unions have already agreed to assess the action
today and consider more if we do not get the appropriate
responses to the complaints voiced in the street,” Bernard
Thibault, head of the large CGT union, told France 2
television.

The strikes follow violence in Corsica and protests over
plans to privatize the SNCM ferry firm that have highlighted
the problems facing Villepin, a potential candidate in a
presidential election due in 2007.




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