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Europe

France Hit by Strike Action

French unions were staging walkouts Thursday, May 22, against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to reform public sector pensions.

An empty train sttaion platform in France

Many trains were cancelled Thursday

Strikes were putting the brakes on train services across France on Thursday, May 22, as rail workers led a national stoppage. Only half of trains were running during a day of protests against pension reforms that the government says are needed to fill empty state coffers and restore the country's economic vitality.

Although there was major disruption in Marseille, the expected rush-hour chaos was limited in Paris and other major cities, as the unions stuck to new rules on running a minimum service during strikes.

While airports experienced delays, two out of three high speed trains continued to run and schools remained open.

Other sectors were also showing their displeasure, with port workers striking over plans to privatize part of their industry and fishermen disrupting shipping in a fight against rising fuel costs.

Postal, utility and telecoms workers also stayed away their jobs in large numbers.

Major queues of trucks also built up at the English Channel port of Calais because of a strike against dock privatization -- and morning radio slots were replaced by music on public stations.

Show of unity

The country's five largest unions called on their members to take to the streets in 80 cities to denounce the government's plans to extend from 40 to 41 years the time on the job needed to collect full pension.

Tens of thousands of workers responded to the call.

Between 40,000 protestors, according to police, and 150,000, according to unions turned out for early protests in Nantes, Rouen and Le Havre in the west, Grenoble and Marseille in the southeast and Clermont-Ferrand in central France.

The protest is the latest against a series of reforms by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who came to office a year ago on a pledge to modernize France and cut the state's budget deficit.

His government insists that rising life expectancy coupled with weak public finances means the retirement age must rise -- as it has elsewhere in Europe, including in Germany.

Widespread protest

With six in 10 French people saying they support the movement, the unions were pinning the success of their protest on the number of people turning out for their rallies, with 500,000 expected in Paris later on Thursday for the main march.

"The scale of the protests will show that the government will have to review its plans under pressure," Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union, told France 2 television.

"Our aim is to have the maximum number of workers express their disapproval," he said.

According to Reuters, opponents to the government's plans say the real problem is that many companies systematically get rid of workers in their 50s, who then collect generous benefits until they can formally retire. They say the government should tackle this problem first.

Not the first time

But Sarkozy shows little sign of reversing his plans, and has promised to unleash a fresh wave of reforms to improve the efficiency of the state in coming months.

He had a showdown with the unions last November, when transport workers held a crippling nine-day strike against plans to scrap the special pension rights of mainly public-sector workers.

Although it won that fight, the government might this time be forced to negotiate a compromise to get the agreement of the unions in order to carry out the next stage of its planned reforms.

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