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Public Transportation in France Crippled by Strike - 2003-05-13


Hundreds of thousands of French workers went on strike and demonstrated against government plans to overhaul retirement benefits. The mass action virtually shut down transportation and many public sector businesses.

Protesters poured into the streets of Paris and other major French cities to register their displeasure against government plans to reform the pension system.

Union leaders estimated more than one million people joined the nationwide demonstrations, possibly surpassing a similar 1995 strike. Police put the figure at 850,000.

In Paris, between 50,000 and 250,000 workers marched on a cool and windy day, brandishing banners denouncing the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Paris nurse Francoise Besserie, 51, was among them. Normally, she said, she should retire in four years. But under the government's new pension proposal, she would have to work an extra two years. She has worked 18 years as a nurse, and she said she has had enough.

A 55-year-old therapist at the demonstration, Jean-Victore Cahn, also criticized the government's pension reform proposals.

Mr. Cahn said he believes the French government has enough money to pay retirement benefits under the current plan, but he charged it is being siphoned off by big firms and rich executives.

But many economists say the French government is right when it argues the country can no longer afford to pay for a fast-growing number of retirees. They warn the pension system may go bankrupt without drastic reforms. Governments across Europe are grappling with the same pension problem.

The day-long strike virtually shut down schools, postal services and public transportation in many cities. Despite the inconvenience, many French support the demonstrations. Antique dealer Francoise Guin, who watched the protesters march by her Paris shop, is an exception.

Mrs. Guin argued that French people are working less, but expect the same benefits as before. But, she said, the country can not build a solid economy with a lot of retirees and unemployed youths. Mrs. Guin is 53 years old, and expects to retire when she is 70, much later than most French workers are willing to contemplate.