Sarkozy prepares to sell reforms to French voters

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PARIS, Sep 20 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy will try to win support today for his drive to shake up the creaking social security system and increase pay and flexibility in public services, despite union strike threats.

Sarkozy goes on two main television networks around 2330 ist to try to get voters behind his reform plans, set out in two major policy speeches this week whose tone of urgency surprised and antagonised trade union leaders.

After an initial flurry of reforms following his election in May, Sarkozy stepped up the pace after the summer break, prompting threats of strikes and warnings that fast reform often meant botched reform.

Political commentators say his television speeches are an ''after-sales service'' drive to ensure public support for his plans.

Rail workers upset at his proposal to align them with the less generous civil service pension have already called a strike for October. 17 in protest and energy sector staff may join them.

''We are discussing with other unions and we are converging for a strike on October. 17,'' said a spokesman for the CGT union.

''We will confirm the date at the beginning of next week.'' The daily Le Monde wrote in an editorial that ''the strategy of Mr Sarkozy is coherent but it errs by the precipitation of its pace. He wants to go 'quick', even if that means imposing a hellish pace on the negotiations.'' Sarkozy said on Tuesday he wanted Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand's consultations on the ''special regime'' pensions to be wrapped up within two weeks, leaving management and unions a few months to thrash out the details.

RESHUFFLE RUMOURS Economists say France must carry out major structural reforms if it is to enjoy sustainable, long-term growth and meet its EU commitments to cut its budget deficit and public debt.

Reform has proved politically risky in the past. Mass street protests forced a conservative government climbdown in 1995 and a heavy defeat in early general elections two years later.

But Bertrand, given the task of pushing through the pension reform, said times had changed.

''French society in 2007 is nothing like it was in 1995,'' he told Europe 1 radio. ''You can see that today, everyone is ready to come and debate with me, to have a dialogue on this issue.'' Sarkozy also faces talk of cabinet unrest, with renewed speculation he will reshuffle his cabinet in January and reports that Prime Minister Francois Fillon is unhappy at the many media appearances of the president and his senior aides.

''Together ... Until When?'' asked the daily Le Parisien over frontpage photos of the two men, following a Fillon interview with the glossy magazine Paris Match in which he conceded he had been put out by Sarkozy's reference to him as a ''collaborator''.

Asked if the term collaborator had hurt him, Fillon replied: ''Hurt, no. Annoyed, a little.'' REUTERS SKB RK1845

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