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France's Sarkozy warns against strike violence

PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy warned on Friday against violence when public sector workers launch protest strikes next week over the scrapping of their pension privileges.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses the progressive's conference in Paris November 9, 2007. Sarkozy warned on Friday against violence when public sector workers launch protest strikes next week over the scrapping of their pension privileges. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Sarkozy also said caving into union demands for concessions would condemn France to more poverty, unemployment and ensure the country fell further behind international competitors.

The threat of rolling strikes from Tuesday pose the most serious threat to date to Sarkozy’s drive to free up France’s hide-bound economy, boost growth and provide more jobs.

“I say to everyone -- be very responsible, be very calm and show a great deal of composure,” Sarkozy told a meeting of renegade leftists who have rallied to his centre-right government.

“This country does not need violence, manipulation on top of all the problems it has,” he added.

Transport unions, who called a one-day stoppage on October 18 that caused nationwide travel chaos, are set to start an open-ended movement from late on Tuesday. Energy workers are due to down tools the following day.

Both groups oppose plans to scrap the so-called “special regime” pensions that allows around 500,000 public sector workers to make 2.5 years fewer pension contributions than other state and private sector workers.

Sarkozy said that, unlike previous governments which withdrew reforms in the face of mass protests, he would stand firm on an issue he made a key plank of his election campaign.

“I’m very aware of the social and political history of France. But that strategy, what has it brought France? More unemployment, more poverty and falling further behind the international competition,” Sarkozy said.

“I promised more jobs, more purchasing power, less unemployment. That’s why I won’t do what so many have done before me,” he added.

Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand, in charge of the pension changes, told the conservative daily Le Figaro that he expected next week’s strike could drag on.

“Travelers should prepare for a strike that could last,” he told Saturday’s edition of the paper. “In October, a one-day strike was announced and there were serious disruptions for three days.”

The head of the SNCF state-rail network wrote to all staff on Friday urging them to negotiate rather than penalize commuters, a move dismissed by unions.

The head of the main CGT union, Bernard Thibault, wrote to Bertrand urging tripartite negotiations between the government, management and unions to settle the special regimes issue.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Wednesday ruled out making fresh concessions to the unions.

Reporting by Jon Boyle