Hundreds of thousands of workers strike in France

French civil servants join strikes
By ELAINE GANLEY, AP, Nov. 20, 2007

PARIS - Schools closed, flights were delayed, trains again weren't running, and newspapers weren't printed as civil servants joined transport workers in strikes Tuesday to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy's program of sweeping reform for France

A defiant Sarkozy said voters gave him a mandate for reform when they elected him in May, adding: "We will not surrender and we will not retreat."

"France needs reforms to meet the challenges imposed on it by the world," he told a meeting of mayors.

Sarkozy previously had remained uncharacteristically silent about the transit strikes that have hobbled the national rail network and transport in and around the capital for a week.

He said the walkout must stop before it brings "the economy to its knees."

"You have to know how to stop a strike," said the conservative. "You have to think of all of those who have to go to work."

He reiterated his determination to press ahead with the pension reform that prompted labor leaders to call the 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," Sarkozy said.

The walkouts looked increasingly like the last gasp of a protest movement that started with train drivers but seems to be losing some punch after a week of major travel disruptions.

Talks with transport unions are to start Wednesday and the government said it would take part.

Tuesday marked the seventh full day of the transit strikes against pension reforms.

Hundreds of thousands of civil servants — teachers, customs agents and tax inspectors — also stayed off the job to press for pay raises and job security. Sarkozy has promised a slimmed-down and reformed civil service, France's largest employer with more than 5 million workers.

Although civil servants and transport workers have different demands, together their protests stood as the biggest test since Sarkozy took office with a determination to revamp France through reforms and cost-cutting.

More than 300,000 teachers — about 40 percent — were on strike Tuesday, the Education Ministry said, and some schools were forced to close. Flights also were delayed and postal services were affected.

National newspapers were absent from kiosks as printers and distributors joined the walkout. 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 the staff members were on strike.

Thousands joined protest marches in Paris and other cities. The Paris demonstration had a picnic atmosphere, with music, roasted sausages and balloons marked "Public Service is a Public Good." The demonstrators marched across the Left Bank to the gold-domed monument at Les Invalides, site of Napoleon's tomb.

About one in seven employees at France's main energy utilities, Electricite de France and Gaz de France, were on strike, the companies said.

Striking air traffic controllers caused delays averaging 45 minutes at Paris' two airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, affecting both short domestic routes and long-haul flights.

Despite the pressure on Sarkozy, the government has stood firm. Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Monday that reforms must move forward.

The transit strike has caused massive disruption on the national rail network and in Paris' Metro and commuter lines.

The government says the transit walkout is costing France's economy between $440 million and $513 million a day and could dent economic growth if it lasts.

Train drivers are protesting 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 nonnegotiable.

Sarkozy 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 a law allowing them to seek nongovernment funding. Critics fear the change will mean schools closing their doors to the poor and scrapping classes that can't attract private funding.


Associated Press Writers Jean-Marie Godard, John Leicester and Elizabeth Ryan contributed to this story.

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