Civil servants join in French
PARIS – President Nicolas Sarkozy stood firm against spreading strikes Tuesday, insisting he will not water down plans for a thorough overhaul of France, even as civil servants joined the walkouts and thousands of protesters took to the streets.Sarkozy was characteristically defiant as he broke what had been an unusual silence during a week of transit strikes that have disrupted travel across the nation. He accused the strikers of holding commuters “hostage” and called for them to return to work.Turning to critics who hope he can be forced to back away from deep economic, social and political changes for a country that has proved difficult to reform, Sarkozy had a simple message: Forget it.”France needs reforms to meet the challenges imposed on it by the world,” he said in a spirited speech to mayors. “These reforms have been too long in coming. … After so much hesitation, so much procrastination, so many backward steps, we will not surrender and we will not retreat.”Sarkozy appears to have the upper hand in his test of strength with powerful transport unions fighting tougher pension rules – opinion polls say the public strongly supports the president and strikers have been trickling back to work on subway and long-distance trains.If he wins the faceoff, Sarkozy will improve his chances for pushing through even bigger and more ambitious reforms. One involves slimming down and reforming the civil service, whose 5 million workers make it France’s largest employer.Sarkozy insisted in his speech that he didn’t deliberately pick the fight with the train unions.But he certainly chose the field of combat well: Pension rights that train drivers and other specially classed workers are fighting to protect are cushier than those enjoyed by most in France. Sarkozy says pension rights should be equal for all – and he has public opinion on his side.Sarkozy “hasn’t won the gamble yet, because the trains still aren’t running. But it seems he will win,” said Etienne Schweisguth, a researcher at the respected Sciences Po school of political sciences in Paris.”If he wins this first test of strength then a bastion will have given way. Unions, workers, leftists will be less disposed to strike in the future,” Schweisguth said in a telephone interview. “He will have weakened the opponents of reform.”The question now is when and how the transport strike, which was heading into its eighth full day Wednesday, might end.Talks with transport unions were to start Wednesday and the government said state representatives would take part. In his speech, Sarkozy said, “You have to know how to stop a strike when the time for discussion opens.”Transport workers are not his only challenge.Hundreds of thousands of civil servants – teachers, customs agents, tax inspectors and others – stayed off the job Tuesday to press their separate demands for pay raises and job security. That walkout closed schools and caused flight delays.The double whammy of transport and public service walkouts further frayed tempers. In the Paris Metro, one young man cursed, “Even the escalators are on strike,” when the equipment ground to an unexplained halt at one station.”Many people are getting angry, they are losing patience,” said Monica Deluca, who works for an advertising firm. She had to hire a babysitter because her children’s school was strikebound, but the sitter was delayed by the transit strike, making Deluca late for work, too.Civil servants, transport workers and protesting students have different demands, and there is no sign that Sarkozy yet faces a unified labor movement – but the risk is that one could develop if the strikes drag on.The CGT union estimated 700,000 people joined protest marches around France on Tuesday in defense of the civil service. Police estimated about half that.At a demonstration in Paris, the “Internationale” communist hymn blared from loudspeakers and marchers chanted “All as one!” They marched across the Left Bank to the gold-domed monument at Les Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb.National newspapers were absent from kiosks as printers and distributors jumped on the strike bandwagon. Strike-hit France-Inter radio broadcast music and a message of apology instead of regular programming.The national weather service, Meteo France, which has a total of 3,700 employees, said a third of the staff scheduled to work Tuesday was on strike, but weather forecasts were not affected.—Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard, Angela Charlton, Elaine Ganley and Elizabeth Ryan contributed to this report.