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Strike forces Chirac to defend reform

Paris, May 28 (Reuters): French President Jacques Chirac defended his government’s pension reforms as fair and urgent today as teachers geared up to join transport workers in a fresh strike over the shake-up.

After previously leaving the tricky issue to Cabinet ministers, Chirac waded into the explosive debate with a fierce defence of his Centre-Right government’s plans to make people pay into the state-run pension system for longer.

“This reform is urgent,” Chirac said in a statement to the Cabinet, a copy of which was issued by his office. The Cabinet adopted the plans and sent them to parliament, which the government hopes will pass the reforms. “It was the responsibility of the government to act and to act without delay, so as to avoid having to one day take brutal measures,” Chirac said. “It’s a fair reform.”

Adding to Chirac’s woes, teachers’ unions, opposed to the pensions overhaul and decentralisation reforms, called a walkout for next Tuesday — the same day transport workers are planning to strike.

Chirac’s previous association with pension reform was not a happy one politically. He had to share power with a Socialist-led administration for five years from 1997 after protests against pension reforms helped bring down the last conservative government.

Unions have heaped pressure on Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to renegotiate the reforms with them. A strike by air traffic controllers yesterday grounded some 80 per cent of flights, but the government has stood firm.

Raffarin says reform is vital to save the pension system, which relies on today’s workers funding today’s retirees, as the ratio of pensioners to workers increases. Chirac’s vocal support for the plans showed the government’s resolve.

The French people needed to back the reform, he said. “This guarantees the pensions of all French people,” he said of the measure. “Everyone must play their part: citizens, the state, businesses.”

School staff have staged nine walkouts since the start of the academic year and there are fears further industrial action may prevent students from sitting “baccalaureat” secondary school exams, which start on June 12.

French air traffic returned to normal today after a one-day strike brought airports across the country to a near stand-still. Green garbage trucks were back on the streets of Paris following a two-day walkout by binmen.

Backers of Chirac’s bid to wean the French from decades of generous but costly state protection were in gung-ho mood. “For France, now is the time for courage or decline,” declared Right-wing Le Figaro daily.

In theory, the cards are stacked in the government's favour.

It has large majorities in both houses of parliament, where opposition Socialists have been too busy regrouping after last year's election route to offer rival proposals either on pensions or Chirac's drive to slim down the public sector.

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