Large swaths of French public life almost ground to a halt
Tuesday as public-sector workers staged new strikes against pension-
reform plans they fear could herald a broad attack on the country's
cherished welfare state.
Schools and post offices closed; docks and airports emptied; and
commuters squeezed onto buses, trains, and metros running to sharply
reduced timetables as the second mass protest in a month snarled
public services. The one-year-old conservative government, however,
staking its future on reform of a creaking state pension system,
said it would not back down.
"There is no question of withdrawing in order to buy social
peace," Education Minister Luc Ferry declared.
"This reform is one of the symbols of President Chirac's campaign
promises," says Alain Duhamel, a prominent French political
commentator. "Retreat would be an enormous defeat for [Prime
Minister] Jean Pierre Raffarin. He could not survive a withdrawal of
The struggle over pensions in France reflects a thorny issue for
many other European nations, where growing numbers of retirees are
placing an increasing burden on regimes funded by a shrinking
Behind the trial of strength over French pensions lie deeper
fears fuelling a certain public support for the strikers, say some
observers. As the government drafts future reforms to social
security and plans for administrative decentralization, traditional
pillars of French society could crumble.
"People feel that they are impotent witnesses to the dismantling
of the welfare state and of the state itself" says Colette Ysmal, a
political analyst and author. "There is a very deep political and
moral crisis in France."
Reforms due to be approved by parliament next month would force
public-sector employees to work for 40 years in order to retire with
full benefits - in line with the private sector - instead of the
present 37.5 years.
By 2012, everyone would have to work for 41 years, in a move the
government says is essential to keep the pension system afloat as
fewer and fewer people of working age support more and more
"Nobody likes to work longer and pay more," says Mr. Duhamel.
"The French are not happy about it, but by and large they are
resigned to it because they are aware that a reform is needed."
They also know that the government abandoned earlier plans to
reform the system even more radically, by introducing personal
pension funds to complement the current "pay as you go" regime. That
proposal, making individuals responsible for their own retirement
plans instead of laying the burden on society as a whole, would have
been a body blow to traditional French notions of social solidarity. …