| Education workers demonstrate in Rouen, northwestern France, against pension reform plans. (AFP)
Paris, May 27 (Reuters): Strikes hit French air traffic, schools and refuse collection today as protests mounted against government plans to force people to work longer to earn a full pension.
A walkout by air traffic controllers grounded some 80 per cent of the 4,000 flights which land or take off in France every day, whilst refuse collectors refused to empty Parisian bins for the second day running.
Unions estimated that up to 60 per cent of teachers would join the strike, the seventh walkout by school staff in industrial action that has kept some children off school for weeks and disrupted exams. The education ministry put turnout at around 40 per cent.
Commuters in the southern port city of Marseille had to make do with a skeletal metro service and no trams. Only 21 of the city’s 390 buses left the depot today.
Teachers are protesting against reforms that will mean many have to work past 65 for a full pension and also against plans to decentralise education funding which they fear will cost thousands of classroom assistant and other school jobs.
“We won’t use students as leverage, but I am saying there is a risk of a bottleneck in exams,” Gerard Aschieri, head of the FSU teachers’ union told French radio.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is keen to avoid the fate of France’s last conservative government which lost power in 1997 after crippling strikes which forced it to scrap pension reforms. He has only two weeks to placate teachers before the bulk of “baccalaureat” secondary school exams start on June 12. Exams for the vocational BTS certificate have already been hit.
The government insists its reform plans are the only way to save the state-run pension system from a funding crunch when baby boomers start flooding in to retirement.
“We cannot retreat on the need for reform,” said Philippe Douste-Blazy, vice-president of the ruling UMP party. The reform is due to be rubber-stamped by Cabinet tomorrow and enter parliament on June 10.
“Air France deplores the situation,” said the carrier in a statement, adding the strikes had forced it to cancel two-thirds of its short-haul and medium-distance flights. Orly international airport on the southern fringes of Paris was quiet in the morning, with travellers heeding advance warnings of disruption and staying away.
But further disruption looms, with transport and civil service unions calling for an open-ended strike from June 3.
”We have no more choice. We demonstrated, but we were not heard. So now we have our last weapon Ä strikes. We are striking during the week so as not to hurt holiday-makers, but if nothing changes we will have to hit harder and for longer,” said Patrick Malandin of the CGT/USAC union.
Some commentators have suggested the government hopes the advent of summer, and start of school holidays on June 28, will weaken the unions' resolve and enable it to push through the reforms. (Additional reporting by Brian Love)