Strikers snarl traffic, citizens snarl at strikers

France has been crippled for more than a week by a wave of strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic reforms. The labor unrest has come from public-transit workers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, tobacco-shop owners, air traffic controllers, fishermen, even opera stagehands.

On Thursday, nearly half of France's universities were shut down by protests. Soon, lawyers and judges will walk out over their own grievances. The traffic chaos and street demonstrations stir up memories of a France that is fond of revolution. But this time, something has changed: The public has had it with strikes.

From stranded commuters to students missing exams, there is frustration and anger at those striking in the name of leftist ideology or to preserve special privileges such as early retirement on a full pension. By Thursday, evidence that the unions had run into a determined president and his supportive public was accumulating as major rail unions voted to return to work while negotiations continued, easing the transit calamity.

For all the talk about the strength of the French labor movement, only 7 percent of workers are union members, fewer than in the United States. In the ranks of those who are striking, there are now divisions as well as solidarity. On Wednesday, some unions were forced to disown saboteurs who set fire to high-speed train tracks, further delaying a stalled system.

And some students were working against the strike plans of other students. Take, for example, Julie Coudry, president of the Student Confederation, a national organization that split four years ago from the main students union.

"They were living in the past, fighting the same old ideological fights with the government," Coudry says.

Coudry, 28, is an economics major at the Sorbonne, the starting point of the 1968 student uprisings. She has supported herself by working as a barmaid and for trade unions over the past nine years for an education prolonged by leading student strikes and involvement in national elections.

Coudry persuaded the main presidential candidates to back a "third mission" for French universities — to prepare students to find jobs, as well as to provide education and promote research. The business world, Coudry argued, disregards university graduates who "don't know about work, who don't know about the economy, who don't know the codes and ethics on the job. We want to change that."

This summer, the government approved a sweeping law that allows universities more autonomy to manage their budgets, recruit staff and design courses, create partnerships with business and seek additional private funding. It also included Coudry's notion of a "third mission."

The "Black November" of rolling strikes and general turmoil replays the perennial French cycle of a government seeking change, unions taking to the streets, the public rallying around the unions, and the government caving in to demands. This has guided national policy for decades.

Sarkozy, elected earlier in 2007, has picked a fight over special pensions that let railway workers and select groups retire after 37 ½ years, or as young as age 50. These pensions cost the government more than $10 billion a year.

Sarkozy has expressed willingness to negotiate with trade union leaders but has made it clear he will insist on workers paying into the pension system for at least 40 years.

As of last weekend, 66 percent of the French people polled, an increase of 10 percentage points from the previous weekend, were behind Sarkozy's pension reform.


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