Government worried as students join protests
For the fourth time in a month, angry French workers, locking horns with President Sarkozy and his pension reforms, brought life to a standstill across France.
Airports, rail, postal and hospital services were severely affected and schools and colleges remained shut. Refinery workers also walked off the job leading to fears that petrol could be in short supply if the strikes continued.
Some 240 demonstrations were held across France, and, in a new development, students joined the movement for the first time which could give the government a royal headache. The government has been hoping that the student community would stay out of the conflict which so far has essentially involved wage earners who cannot afford to strike too often for fear of losing their pay. Students on the other hand, can make a social unrest movement last longer.
Workers assemblies will decide by secret ballot whether or not to continue with the strike in coming days. About a fifth of all elementary teachers are on strike as are railway, postal and railway workers. The government's nightmare scenario is a repeat of the crippling1995 strikes that lasted 3 weeks and which paralysed France.
The government has done its best to downplay the magnitude of the social protest in France and the unions and government have consistently given out conflicting figures on the number of people who stayed away from work or were out in the streets. The unions claim on Tuesday there were some 3 million out demonstrating on a cold but sunny day. The government again placed the figure at around one million.
In the meanwhile the government is determined to confront the unions and workers with a fait accompli and is rushing the discussions around the pension reform bill in the Senate or Upper House. The Lower House where Mr. Sarkozy and his ruling conservative coalition has an absolute majority, has already passed the bill.
The reform seeks to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The bill also raises the age of eligibility for a full pension from 65 to 67. In a small concession on Thursday, President Sarkozy offered to allow women born before 1956 and who had more than three children to receive full pensions at 65.