November 8, 2007 / 12:20 PM / in 10 years

Sarkozy returns from U.S. to skepticism and strikes

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy returned home on Thursday from Washington to face skepticism about his new transatlantic friendship and a month of strikes that signal growing domestic problems.

<p>France's President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks during a joint press conference with U.S. President George W. Bush (not shown) at the Virginia estate and mansion of the first U.S. President George Washington in Mount Vernon, outside Washington, November 7, 2007. REUTERS/Larry Downing</p>

Two powerful Paris public transport unions said on Thursday they would join a wider rail strike from the evening of November 13, after rejecting a government offer on reforming their pensions.

Hospital helicopter pilots and police officers also joined a growing list of those protesting over Sarkozy’s reforms that now includes court officials, students and civil servants.

Sarkozy says changes are vital for a more dynamic economy, and the next few weeks of strikes and protests will be an important test of his ability to handle the powerful unions who have derailed many previous attempts at reform.

His domestic problems contrast with a measure of success in international policy.

Sarkozy has taken credit for his role in the release of Bulgarian nurses held in Libya and seven Europeans being held in Chad, and for rebuilding bridges with the United States damaged by a rift over the war in Iraq.

But the sight of him winning several standing ovations from the U.S. Congress on Wednesday earned him frowns rather than plaudits back home.

“You cannot be content with looking into each other’s eyes and declaring you love one another. You must transform that into a vision and action for the world,” former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a Sarkozy rival, told RTL radio.

“French Kiss” was the headline in the daily Liberation over a picture of U.S. President George W. Bush and Sarkozy hugging. The paper said Sarkozy had got “lost in his American dream”.

TRANSPORT CHAOS

Sarkozy started his day with a cabinet meeting, ministers briefing him on industrial disputes ranging from a fight with transport workers over pension reform to police officers handing in their mobile phones in protest at cuts to overtime next year.

Even his successes could come back to haunt him. Fishermen blockading ports in western France over high diesel prices on Thursday called off their strike after accepting an aid package announced by Sarkozy ahead of his U.S. trip. But that has only whetted the appetite of other sufferers -- farmers and truckers.

The CGT and Sud-Rail unions said on Thursday its members working for the Paris transport network would join national rail workers in rolling strikes to protest against the planned pension changes. A similar strike last month caused widespread disruption.

Hospital helicopter workers started a 4-day strike aimed at securing a salary increase and civil servants will strike on November 20 over a decision to leave 23,000 jobs unfilled next year.

Student unions said they were blocking up to 40 universities on Thursday in protest at an education reform passed in the summer. The government said only 10 universities were affected.

There was also bad news on the economy. The budget deficit widened to 51.71 billion euros ($75.69 billion) at the end of September, leaving no spare cash to smooth the way for reforms.

Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich and Francois Murphy; Editing by Jon Boyle and Richard Williams

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