November 16, 2008 / 4:28 PM / 10 years ago

France faces week of strike chaos

PARIS, Nov 16 (Reuters) - France faces a week of disruption from transport and public sector strikes as unions wage a slew of separate campaigns against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s labour reforms.

Hundreds of domestic and international flights were cancelled for a third day on Sunday as Air France (AIRF.PA) pilots pursued a four-day strike, due to end late on Monday.

Travel chaos could spread to the railways on Tuesday when train drivers stage the first of two actions called by separate unions for the same week, while on Thursday many schools could be closed when teachers demonstrate over 2009 budget cuts.

On Saturday, postal services face disruption over plans to prepare the La Poste mail service for partial privatisation.

The head of one of France’s biggest unions, CGT leader Bernard Thibault, urged Sarkozy to pay the same attention to workers’ demands as he and other leaders have devoted on the world stage to finding a solution to the financial crisis.

“It is urgent to tackle the social situation,” Thibault told France Info radio.

Sarkozy is due to return to Paris on Monday or Tuesday after a private visit to New York following this weekend’s economic Group of 20 summit, which he labelled a “historic” success.

According to an opinion poll for Sunday’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper, the conservative leader’s popularity rating recovered one percentage point to 44 percent this month after falling sharply since he was elected last year.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon saw his rating improve two points to 55 percent.

Sarkozy has denounced the excesses of capitalism following the worst financial crisis in decades but has angered unions by spending billions on bailing out banks while dismantling part of France’s 35-hour work week and relaxing other restrictions.

PILOTS WARNED

The series of strikes comes as leading unions jostle for position in elections for labour arbitration panels on Dec. 3.

A bid by the government to end the Air France strike by guaranteeing the right to retire at 60 broke down on Saturday when pilots voted against ending their strie half way through.

Air France said it was operating 65-70 percent of long-haul flights and around half of its planned short and medium-haul flights on Sunday, the same level as on previous days.

The strike is over proposals to allow pilots to retire at 65 rather than the current retirement age of 60, a measure being discussed in parliament as part of social security reforms.

Air France and the government say the planned change would be voluntary and pilots would not be forced to work until 65. But unions believe it is the thin end of a wedge that will force staff to work longer or accept lower pensions.

The deputy chief executive and next CEO of parent Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA), Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, called the strike “dangerous and useless” and warned pilots it could make the airline more vulnerable to a growing aviation crisis.

He told pilots in a video statement the four-day walkout would cost the company 100 million euros, enough to buy a large Boeing 777 aircraft that would in turn create 20 crew jobs.

State railway SNCF has also made overtures by offering to negotiate over changes in freight service working hours. Unions did not immediately say whether they would take up the offer.

SNCF says it wants to conduct an experiment with 900 volunteers to find a new way of organising the work week in its freight division to meet the rising threat of competition.

The last strike on Nov. 6 caused significant disruption.

In schools, almost all teachers’ unions are calling for a one-day strike on Thursday over what they describe as worsening conditions and plans to cut thousands of posts in 2009. (Additional reporting by Tim Hepher)

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