Strikes wallop commuters and tourists in France and London; more protests to come in Europe

By Angela Doland, AP
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Strikes in France, London foreshadow more protests

PARIS — French strikers disrupted trains and planes, hospitals and mail delivery Tuesday amid massive street protests over plans to raise the retirement age. Across the English Channel, London subway workers unhappy with staff cuts walked off the job.

The protests look like the prelude to a season of strikes in Europe, from Spain to the Czech Republic, as heavily indebted governments cut costs and chip away at some cherished but costly benefits that underpin the European good life — a scaling-back process that has gained urgency with Greece’s €110 billion ($140 billion) bailout.

In France, where people poured into the streets in 220 cities, setting off flares and beating drums, a banner in the southern port city of Marseille called for Europe-wide solidarity: “Let’s Refuse Austerity Plans!” The Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people demonstrated throughout France, while the CFDT union put the number at 2.5 million.

Some commuters were annoyed by the disruptions — even in strike-inured France.

“I’m just getting tired of this because this is not the first time,” said Henda Fersi, a passenger at the Part-Dieu train station in Lyon in southeast France. “I understand the strikers’ point of view but, still, they put us in a difficult situation and we’re penalized.”

French protesters are angry about the government’s plan to do away with the near-sacred promise of retirement at 60, forcing people to work until 62 because they are living longer. The goal is to bring the money-draining pension system back into the black by 2018.

As debate on the subject opened in parliament, Labor Minister Eric Woerth said the plan was one “of courage and reason” and that it is the “duty of the state” to save the pension system. He later told TF1 television that the president would announce minor changes to the reform Wednesday, though its fundamentals would remain the same.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon reminded the French that it could be worse: In nearly all European countries, the current debate is over raising the retirement age to 67 or 68, he said. Germany has decided to bump the retirement age from 65 to 67, for example, and the U.S. Social Security system is gradually raising the retirement age to 67.

That sense of perspective was missing from many of the French protests, where some slogans bordered on the hysterical. One sign in Paris showed a raised middle finger with the message: “Greetings from people who will die on the job.”

Amid the Paris mayhem, European Union finance ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to create new financial institutions in hopes of preventing a repeat of the government debt crisis that nearly left Greece bankrupt and brought the European banking system to its knees. Market jitters remain — though the most apocalyptic scenarios discussed a few months ago, such as the collapse of the euro currency, have been put on the back burner.

In London, Underground workers unhappy about job cuts closed much of the city’s subway system — the first in a series of 24-hour strikes planned for the fall. The thousands of London maintenance workers, drivers and station staff who walked out say the cuts will hurt service and safety.

With the underground train service shut, buses had to take on extra loads, while vehicular traffic was heavy and city sidewalks were teeming with walkers and bikers.

“The bus system has been a mess today, but I got here,” said Anita Prazmowska of South London.

In France, some post offices shut down, schools were hamstrung and public hospitals were hit with a nearly 18 percent staff cut for the day. The strike also blocked the Atlantic coast port at Saint-Nazaire, including vessels that feed into the nearby Total refinery.

Civil aviation authorities asked airlines to cancel a quarter of their flights at Paris’ airports. Only two out of every five of France’s famed high-speed trains operated during the strike, which ran Monday evening through Tuesday night.

Some Paris commuters had to resort to the city’s rental bicycle system, Velib, and not all were happy about it. One commuter, Antonia Gilles, tried it for the first time: “It was a success but it was dangerous.”

Similar protests are set for elsewhere in Europe in coming weeks.

A general strike was planned in Spain for Sept. 29 over labor market reforms, and in the Czech Republic, a massive protest against proposed austerity measures, including 10 percent salary cuts for state employees, was set for Sept. 21.

In Greece, all public transport workers in the Athens area are to stop work Wednesday for five hours to protest planned reforms to the indebted railway company. Rail and suburban rail workers are to repeat the work stoppage Thursday.

The French strikes come at a time when conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval ratings hover in the mid-30 percent range.

On top of that, an unfolding tax and party financing scandal centered on the fortune of the L’Oreal cosmetics heiress has left many wondering if the government cares more about the interests of the rich and powerful than ordinary workers.

“If we need money … we know where to find it,” said Guy Gamet, a 55-year-old representative of the Workers Force union as he marched in Lyon, in the southeast. “When it was necessary to bail out the banks not so long ago, we knew where to find the money.”

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Gillian Smith in London, Jean-Marie Godard in Paris and Pan Pylas in Brussels contributed to this report.

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