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Europe

French, Austrian Workers Battle Pension Cuts

Airports, public transit networks, schools and hospitals were shut down in France and Austria on Tuesday, as around one million people participated in strikes against planned cuts to the countries' retirement systems.

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Thousands of teachers in Marseille, France, skipped classes to protest the pension cuts.

Train stations across France on Tuesday were packed with stranded travelers and Charles de Gaulle and other major airports were transformed into giant parking lots for grounded fleets, as transport workers across the country took part in the "Black Tuesday" strike against the government’s proposed pensions reform.

“I’m already an hour late, but I support the demonstrations,” one Frenchman told the Reuters news agency. “The government shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever it wants.”

Workers completely shut down public transportation systems in over 100 French cities, turning the streets into a sea of people as workers walked, biked or skated to their offices. In Paris, Metro subway services and four-fifths of the city's bus lines were suspended, and 80 percent of the flights departing from the country's major airports were cancelled. Though Air France continued with most of its long-haul and transatlantic flights, two-thirds of its domestic and European flights were cut.

Generous benefits, graying populations

The strikes unfolding in France were mirrored in Austria on Tuesday, as thousands of teachers shut down schools to demonstrate against reforms considered even more dramatic than those proposed by the French. Citizens in both countries enjoy generous retirement plans, but with similarly graying populations and shrinking birthrates, politicians in Paris and Vienna have realized that the current systems are untenable.

The strikes in France and Austria could herald widespread labor unrest throughout the Continent, since most European Union countries, in particular Italy and Germany, face the same demographic time bomb and the same daunting need to reform their public pensions.

With transit at a standstill and mass demonstrations planned in many French cities, most schools also closed in the country's biggest general strike since 1995. That year, unions succeeded in stopping retirement reform plans proposed by the government of then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé through crippling strikes that lasted weeks and eventually brought down the conservative government.

The current strike is intended as a show of trade union strength against the center-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin -- and more than five million government employees are participating, with closures of post offices, the state-run energy company EdF and hospitals in addition to the transit strikes.

More in but less out

The French government is considering a plan that would require civil servants to pay into the federal pensions system for a longer period than is now required. Presently, government workers must pay into the system for 37.5 years before they are allowed to draw benefits, but the government now wants civil servants to work for 40 years, the same amount for workers in the private sector. By 2020, all workers would be required to pay in for 42 years. The government says the plan is necessary to raise the €50 billion ($57.4 billion) necessary to keep the state retirement system solvent through 2020.

Public opinion polls show that two-thirds of the French are against the government's plans, and the unions have threatened to continue with strikes unless Raffarin and his social affairs minister, Francois Fillon, offer an alternative plan that is less painful for workers. So far, those threats have fallen on deaf ears in Paris.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin

"Those who seek to block this reform cannot count on me for any sympathy," Rafarrin recently said. "The street can give its views but the street is not the one that governs."

Vienna slows to a crawl

Meanwhile, Austrian officials on Tuesday were expecting 200,000 workers to participate in one of the country's biggest strikes in 50 years, which was called by the powerful National Federation of Austrian Unions (OeGB) over plans by the conservative government to implement pension reforms even more drastic than those proposed by the French. More than 100,000 people protested at Vienna's Helden Square and roughly the same number of teachers refused to work throughout the country.

In April, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel introduced draft legislation that would extend the number of years a worker is required to pay into the pension system from 40 to 45 years. The bill would also raise the retirement age from the current 59 years for men or 57 years for women to 65 years of age. Schüssel said his plan would save the country at least €2.2 billion over a period of four years.

Schüssel has called on the unions to negotiate with the government, saying that the alternative to not having negotiations would be "more difficult cuts" a few years down the road.

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