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Countrywide Protests Affect Every Public Service in France - 2003-06-11

A battle over proposed pension reforms is continuing in France, pitting teachers, transportation workers and other public sector employees against the country's conservative government.

There seems to be no end to the protests, which have affected just about every French public service this year. The latest strike on Tuesday drew several hundred thousand workers to the streets of Paris and other French cities, according to police estimates.

Workers' unions placed the number of demonstrators at 1.5 million. In Paris, the protests turned ugly as demonstrators hurled stones and other objects at riot police at the Place de la Concorde. Police responded with blasts of tear gas and water.

Public transportation remained erratic Wednesday. And more strikes are scheduled for Thursday. At issue is a parliamentary bill that would require employees to log 42 years of service by the year 2020 to receive full pension benefits. Public sector employees now work only 37.5 years to receive the benefits. But if the system continues, the conservative government argues, the country's pension system will go broke.

The dissension is not just on the streets. At the French National Assembly, where deputies have begun debating the government's pension reform proposal, leftist lawmakers introduced hundreds of amendments. On Tuesday, far-left parliament members also registered their displeasure by singing the Communist anthem, the Internationale.

During a Wednesday address before Parliament, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said he was disappointed with the political Left.

Mr. Raffarin said he had hoped politicians would be unified on pension reforms.

But leftist opponents argue there are other ways to finance pensions besides forcing the French to work longer.

Still many political analysts believe the reforms are long overdue. That includes Steve Ekovich, a French politics professor at the American University of Paris.

"France has needed these reforms for many, many years. No government really has had the courage to confront it,' he said. "It's explosive, as we see. It means people will have to work longer, or pay higher taxes. Or both. So governments, until this one, have been putting it off and putting it off."

A new test will come Thursday, when several thousand high school students are scheduled to sit for end-of-school exams known as the baccalaureate. Despite threats of new strikes, government officials maintain the exams, which have never been canceled since Napoleon's days, will take place as scheduled.