Nicolas Sarkozy set for showdown as unions prepare wave of strikes

President Sarkozy faces his "Thatcher moment" this week as transport workers open a barrage of public sector strikes aimed at breaking his drive to purge France of its old economic ills.

The hardline unions and Mr Sarkozy see the strikes - that start with the rail network tomorrow evening - as a decisive test of his presidency, an inevitable showdown between a radical new leader and left-wing conservative forces.

Mainstream union leaders say that Mr Sarkozy has forced the fight on to ground that they wanted to avoid - the retirement privileges of certain workers. "The Government wants this conflict to set an example," Bernard Thibault, leader of the Confederation Generale du Travail, the biggest union federation, said yesterday.

Rail workers, who paralysed the country for a day last month, start an open-ended strike against Mr Sarkozy's plans to bring their retirement terms into line with those of the civil service. The Paris underground and bus system, as well as national gas and electricity workers, join them on Wednesday. Next Tuesday, teachers, post office workers and the rest of the Civil Service will strike for one day, and possibly longer, for higher pay and against Mr Sarkozy's plans to slim down ministries.

In another front, militant students are blockading at least 20 universities in protest against reforms last summer that give more independence to higher education establishments. The students, who are calling for marches in support of the strikers, say Mr Sarkozy is trying to privatise education. The President dismisses this as nonsense.

Mr Sarkozy is also facing a mutiny from judges, lawyers and provincial MPs from his own Union for a Popular Movement. They are indignant at the announced closure of dozens of courts in a scheme by Rachida Dati, the Justice Minister, to streamline the sprawling justice system.

The President knows that the test of wills with the unions will cause severe disruption but he is confident that he has picked the right issue for his stand. The public sector's "special regime" pensions allow 500,000 workers to make two and a half years' fewer pension contributions than everyone else. They include railway and power personnel, employees of national theatres, merchant seamen and even MPs.

The mood has changed since 1995, when strikes over the same issue forced the surrender of President Chirac and neutered his presidency. Sixty-nine per cent of the public told an Opinionway poll last week that Mr Sarkozy must persist in reform.

If Mr Sarkozy prevails over the unions, the victory, like that of Margaret Thatcher over Arthur Scargill in 1985, will open the way for him to enact the full range of reforms that he promised in his election campaign.

The unions would have preferred to have kept their powder dry for the far-reaching items on his list, such as the labour laws that stifle business. ( Times )

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