Pension reform strikes at traditions of equality in France

Second mass protest in a month highlights discontent with government plans.

Large swaths of French public life almost ground to a halt Tuesday as public-sector workers staged new strikes against pension-reform plans they fear could herald a broad attack on the country's cherished welfare state.

Schools and post offices closed; docks and airports emptied; and commuters squeezed onto buses, trains, and metros running to sharply reduced timetables as the second mass protest in a month snarled public services. The one-year-old conservative government, however, staking its future on reform of a creaking state pension system, said it would not back down.

"There is no question of withdrawing in order to buy social peace," Education Minister Luc Ferry declared.

"This reform is one of the symbols of President Chirac's campaign promises," says Alain Duhamel, a prominent French political commentator. "Retreat would be an enormous defeat for [Prime Minister] Jean Pierre Raffarin. He could not survive a withdrawal of this bill."

The struggle over pensions in France reflects a thorny issue for many other European nations, where growing numbers of retirees are placing an increasing burden on regimes funded by a shrinking workforce.

Behind the trial of strength over French pensions lie deeper fears fuelling a certain public support for the strikers, say some observers. As the government drafts future reforms to social security and plans for administrative decentralization, traditional pillars of French society could crumble.

"People feel that they are impotent witnesses to the dismantling of the welfare state and of the state itself" says Colette Ysmal, a political analyst and author. "There is a very deep political and moral crisis in France."

Reforms due to be approved by parliament next month would force public-sector employees to work for 40 years in order to retire with full benefits - in line with the private sector - instead of the present 37.5 years.

By 2012, everyone would have to work for 41 years, in a move the government says is essential to keep the pension system afloat as fewer and fewer people of working age support more and more pensioners.

"Nobody likes to work longer and pay more," says Mr. Duhamel. "The French are not happy about it, but by and large they are resigned to it because they are aware that a reform is needed."

They also know that the government abandoned earlier plans to reform the system even more radically, by introducing personal pension funds to complement the current "pay as you go" regime. That proposal, making individuals responsible for their own retirement plans instead of laying the burden on society as a whole, would have been a body blow to traditional French notions of social solidarity. Those notions are also at the root of strikes by teachers - overlapping the pensions protests - against the first signs of the government's decentralization scheme.

The eventual plan is to give regional governments more authority over a wide range of activities, from road repair and environmental policy to family benefits. Initially, they would take over responsibility for school maintenance and the employment of nonteaching staff.

That, teachers fear, would penalize poorer regions and undermine one of the three founding principles of the French republic: equality for all its citizens.

Threats to the welfare state, to the principle of equality, and to the quality of public services in the name of modernization and economy mean that "French icons are under attack," says Ms. Ysmal.

The current strikes, she suggests, are "a social movement of mutation; people know there is something behind these reforms but they don't know exactly what. They are not sure about their future, or what tomorrow will bring."

Nor can the strikers turn to opposition parties for reassurance or practical alternatives.

The Socialist Party, whose presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, was knocked into third place by the extreme right wing Jean Marie Le Pen in last year's first round elections, is still struggling to find its voice.

Socialist leaders have had especially little to say in the pensions debate, since their reform proposals differed little from the plan that the current government has offered. Mr. Raffarin seems determined to push his reform through now, analysts say, partly because he faces such weak opposition.

Protest strikes do not yet appear to threaten a major government crisis, such as the one the trade unions provoked in 1995, when they brought down the last conservative government by firmly opposing an earlier attempt at pension reform.

And if Raffarin succeeds in pushing his bill through before parliament's summer break, says Duhamel "he will have more autonomy in the autumn when it comes to decentralization and social security reform.

"There will certainly be a new wave of protests against him then," he predicts. "But the prime minister will be in a stronger position to deal with them if he has pension reform behind him."

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