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French Strike Against Cuts in Pensions Jams Traffic


By CRAIG S. SMITH, New York Times


 June 11, 2003

The police in Paris used a water cannon yesterday to break up a demonstration outside the National Assembly building. The protesters oppose a bill that would decrease pension benefits for government workers.

PARIS - Striking government workers tied up traffic in Paris yesterday for the third time in a month to protest a bill that would slash retirement benefits. Legislators may vote on it within a few weeks.

In the stately National Assembly building, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin urged the legislators to pass the bill, a pension revision that would force workers to stay on the job several more years before retirement and cut the benefits due them.

"This is a necessary reform, and everybody knows it," Mr. Raffarin told the Assembly, the lower house of France's Parliament, as it began a 10-day debate on the legislation.

He said that without the changes the country's pension fund would fall about $50 billion short in 2020 and would be missing more than $100 billion to pay retirees in 2040.

"To those who are afraid, to those who have fears, I say that our reform is a reform of national security," he said. "It would be irresponsible to hide our heads in the sand like an ostrich."

Mr. Raffarin's supporters responded by standing and singing the national anthem, "La Marseillaise," while some of the legislature's leftist members countered by singing the workers' anthem, the "Internationale." Opposition parties have filed 9,000 proposed amendments to the pension bill in an effort to derail it.

Tens of thousands of protesters massed outside, vowing to bring the country to a standstill if the bill becomes law. Some threw stones and bottles as they tried to push across the bridge from the Place de la Concorde to the National Assembly building. The police fired tear gas in return.

Protesters smashed the windows of L'Oréal, the cosmetics company, on the Rue Royale, injuring one person, according to witnesses. They also set fire to trash left by striking sanitation workers that has piled up on the Boulevard de la Madeleine.

Some protesters even interrupted a performance at the Palais Garnier, the city's ornate opera house, causing the police to evacuate the building and send 300 well-dressed theatergoers into the street.

Postal workers, state bank employees, telecommunications operators, teachers, nurses and police officers joined in the nationwide strike. Interrupted train service caused traffic jams that stretched for miles outside the capital as private companies' employees drove to work. Protests filled city centers in Marseille, Rouen and Nantes as well.

Despite the strikes and colorful demonstrations — a long-held tradition in this country — the center-right government, which holds a clear majority in Parliament, showed no sign of scaling back its legislation. It says the proposed changes are unavoidable because of the rising number of pensioners as the country's baby boomers age.

Even government workers realize that something must change if they are all to continue enjoying guaranteed pension payments. But they say the government is asking too much with proposals that would require them to work 40 years before retirement, rather than the 37.5 years they are required to work now. Under the bill, government employees would have to work 42 years after 2009.

"Your reform project is neither just or equitable," wrote Bernard Thibault, secretary general of the C.G.T., France's largest labor federation, in an open letter to Mr. Raffarin published in several national newspapers. He demanded that the government open negotiations with all of the country's unions.

Some unions have officially been on strike since mid-May and some since the beginning of this month, while others urged their members to start striking for an indefinite period beginning today. The strikes delayed some flights, but the main air traffic controllers' union stayed on the job and airports continued to operate.

Despite the inconveniences caused by the strikes, the government workers enjoy widespread support among their compatriots. One poll published by Le Figaro on Saturday showed that 66 percent of respondents supported or had sympathy for the strikers.

Many students, though, are worried that striking teachers will interfere with the annual baccalaureate examinations, which are required for study in the country's universities. The exams begin on Thursday with a four-hour philosophy test. Some teachers have threatened to protest by giving high grades to everyone.

In an interview published in the daily Tribune, Mr. Raffarin said he would do whatever it took to ensure that the exams progressed smoothly, and he remained optimistic about the fate of his pension bill.

"There are never social reforms in France without agitation," he said. "That is why reforms have been put off so often."

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