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 France: Pension strike shuts down Paris

The Age, May 14, 2003

Public transport remained disrupted in Paris early today, one day after hundreds of thousands of French workers joined a massive public sector strike to protest the centre-right government's pension reform plans.

Tuesday's protest paralysed much of the country in the biggest show of union muscle since 1995.

Public transport ground to a halt, schools and post offices were closed, most domestic and international flights were cancelled.

The interior ministry said about a million people altogether had taken part in accompanying demonstrations throughout the country.

But residents of the capital hoping for a return to normal on Wednesday morning found metro, bus and suburban rail services again disrupted as many workers continued the walkout.

Regional rail traffic was also affected Wednesday, but was expected to return to normal later in the day. The international Eurostar and Thalys trains were running normally.

Unions proclaimed Tuesday's strikes an overwhelming triumph and urged the government to heed the popular opposition. But Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon vowed to push ahead with reform and said there was no alternative but to proceed.

"The government will not stop in mid-course. Today there are many people demonstrating but there are many who are not ... and it is the role of government to determine the general interest," Fillon told the National Assembly.

The minister was to meet representatives of the main unions on Wednesday to discuss minor changes to the pensions bill, which is to go through parliament in the coming weeks, but he made clear he would not alter the essential points.

The aim of the law is to preserve the country's "pay-as-you-go" pensions system which is rapidly going bankrupt as the population ages. The main provision is the extension of the number of years people will be required to work to qualify for a full pension.

The day of strikes and demonstrations was the biggest challenge yet to the year-old government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who has till now successfully defused social unrest by a combination of consultation and compromise.

The strike caused a near total shutdown of the metro system in Paris, and commuters walked, cycled or skated to work rather than face the ordeal of a journey by car. Public transport was crippled in around 80 other towns and cities.

At airports, air traffic controllers, customs officials and Air France staff joined the strike, causing the cancellation of four out of five flights; regional rail services operated a skeleton service and only one in four TGV fast trains was running; ferries to Corsica and across the English Channel remained in port.

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