October 4, 2005

Strikes, protests put pressure on French govt

By Timothy Heritage

PARIS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people demonstrated
across France on Tuesday as a one-day strike snarled public
transport, putting pressure on the government to change its
labor and economic policies.

Some of the protesters demanded the resignation of
conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin after only
four months in power as they marched through major cities such
as Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lyon.

The strike was called by all of France's main trade unions
over low pay, a high unemployment of 9.9 percent of the
workforce, falling living standards and a new law which makes
it easier for small firms to sack staff. They also want to
preserve the 35-hour working week.

Most public transport was not running in Marseille and
Bordeaux and hundreds of flights were canceled, most of them
domestic. Trains, buses and subway services were affected to a
lesser extent in many other cities.

"We're protesting against the insecurity of our jobs, over
our salaries and because we're generally fed up," said Philippe
du Pire, a transport worker marching under a white and red
trade union flag in Paris.

Trade unions vowed to hold more protests unless their
demands are met, sending a warning to Villepin that any reforms
he plans could face major obstacles from the restive workforce.

"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

Facing his toughest challenge since he took office,
Villepin said he would listen to the protesters' demands and
vowed to press on with policies intended to reduce high
unemployment, boost industry and restore voters' confidence.

"I am listening the message sent by the French people," he
told parliament. "They want results and that's what we are
fighting for."

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.


High-speed international trains ran on time but rail
traffic was hit in France. The SNCF state rail firm said 40
percent of regional services were running and 60 percent of
high-speed TGV inter-city services were guaranteed.

Strikes by energy workers reduced power production, but
there were no power cuts. Some schools were hit because
teachers and canteen workers were on strike.

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.

Villepin's own chances of remaining in power, and perhaps
running for the presidency in an election due in 2007, rest
heavily on his ability to push through reforms while
simultaneously restoring the confidence of voters.

(Additional reporting by Anna Willard and Dominique