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France Gripped by Nationwide Transportation Strike - 2003-06-10

French transportation and other public workers have launched a new nationwide strike, disrupting air and ground traffic, and putting France's end-of-high-school exams into doubt.

The demonstrations were carefully timed to coincide with a National Assembly debate on a government bill to reform the French pension system. The government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has the support of fellow conservatives, who hold the majority of parliamentary seats.

Tens of thousands of workers marched the streets of Paris and other French cities. The protesters disrupted rail, metro and some airline traffic. Many commuters who opted to drive to work, found themselves caught in massive traffic jams.

Government proposals to gradually increase to 42 the number of working years to receive full retirement benefits have not been received well by many French workers. That is particularly true for public sector employees, who currently need only 37.5 years of service for the perks.

In recent weeks, the country has been roiled by a steady stream of demonstrations, which have disrupted transportation, health care and municipal services, along with many other sectors. According to one leading French newspaper, the strikes have cost Air France alone up to $10 million, and France's SNCF rail system more than $20 million.

And for the first time since 1968, the protests threaten to disrupt end-of-high school exams, known as the baccalaureate, which are scheduled for Thursday. Teachers are striking not only against the proposed pension reforms, but also against separate proposals to decentralize the French education system.

Government and union leaders claim the exams will take place as scheduled. But teachers' unions say they first want concrete answers from the government. France's education and interior ministers are to meet leaders from teachers' unions later Tuesday. There are reports the government is willing to soften the timeline for the educational reforms, but not the reforms themselves.

The rolling wave of strikes is considered the most serious since 1995 demonstrations, which ultimately brought down France's last conservative government. The last wave of unrest also targeted proposed pension reforms, which were ultimately withdrawn.

This time, the government has vowed to stand firm, arguing the country's pension system may soon go bankrupt without a drastic overhaul.