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France Expected to Face Country-wide Demonstration Tuesday - 2003-05-12


France is bracing for a country-wide demonstration Tuesday on a scale not seen in years. Tens-of-thousands of workers are expected to protest government proposals to overhaul the pension system.

Public transportation across France is expected to be paralyzed, which means many French will be arriving to work on foot or roller-blade, by car or taxi, or will simply not go to work at all.

Most children will probably not have school Tuesday, since many teachers and school employees are expected to join the strike; so are postal and railway workers. And up to 80 percent of all air travel is expected to either be halted or severely affected by the protests.

Experts predict the strike may be as large as 1995 demonstrations. Those protests ultimately brought down the government of former French Prime Minister Alain Juppe. As in 1995, workers are protesting proposals to drastically overhaul retirement benefits - in the latest case, by requiring French to work 42 years by the year 2020 to receive full benefits. The French National Assembly is expected to address the government's legislation next month.

In addition, some workers are protesting other unpopular measures. Teachers, for example, will also be demonstrating against government proposals to decentralize French education, and to cut youth employment programs.

Almost nobody believes the current conservative government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin will fall. But a survey published by France's Le Parisien newspaper Monday found 64 percent of French supported the current protests, compared with only 54 percent in 1995.

And while Mr. Raffarin says politics are not made on the street, his social affairs minister, Francois Fillon, has already announced new discussions with French labor unions, scheduled for Wednesday.

France's efforts to overhaul its pension system mirror those elsewhere in Europe. The continent's elderly population is living longer, and growing faster than the work-aged population that subsidizes them. So to pay for future retirement benefits, governments in Europe are looking for ways to trim or overhaul often generous, government-guaranteed pension programs.

But as the French government is finding, such reforms are often deeply unpopular.

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