France's Sarkozy firm on reform as strike looms

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PARIS, Oct 14 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy will not back down from a reform of generous pension perks for some public workers, aides said today, ahead of a strike seen as the first test of his resolve against powerful unions.

Railway, bus, power, gas and some other state workers are expected to strike on Thursday in protest of plans to eliminate privileges in certain sectors that let labourers retire earlier than their peers in other industries.

The strike, which is expected to disrupt transport and other services, is also seen as yardstick for public support of unions following Sarkozy's election on a promise to reform privileges enjoyed by only 6 per cent of pensioners.

''The government will be very firm in its position,'' Budget Minister Eric Woerth said on Radio J.

Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant told Sunday's edition of Le Monde newspaper: ''There is no chance of a climbdown.'' Only around 8 per cent of French workers belong to a union, and public support for union protests appears to be falling.

But they have a strong grip on public services and strikes have forced many previous governments to back down from painful changes that critics say are essential for France to modernise its economy and boost growth.

The SNCF railway operator has said only one train in four will be running on Thursday and Eurostar is also expecting a disruption. Airports and Air France flights may also be affected.

SAME RIVER? Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Saturday he did not expect a repeat of the paralysis seen in 1995, when a government last tried to reform the special pensions regime.

''You never swim twice in the same river,'' Fillon said.

But Bernard Thibault, head of the largest CGT union, told Reuters last week he expected a strong turnout and many more strikes before the end of the year.

The government has passed a law to ensure minimum transport during strikes, but it will not take effect until next year.

The special pensions were introduced after the Second World War for jobs considered particularly arduous and allows those workers to retire after 37.5 years rather than 40 for others.

The reform also aims to make pension rises index-linked, ending a system in which the special regimes see retirement payouts linked to wage deals enjoyed by those still working in the sector. The reform aims to bring the two systems into line.

Journal du Dimanche newspaper called the strike ''the first (sign of) discontent'' since Sarkozy took office in May after winning elections on a reform platform.

He has mostly enjoyed high ratings in opinion polls but his popularity has recently started to slip.

He is under pressure from the European Union to move faster on reforms to spur the economy and reduce the budget deficit.

While there is public support for this pension reform, there are also concerns that more measures are needed to address low economic growth, rising healthcare costs, and further inefficiencies in the pension system and job contracts.

REUTERS SYU BST2051

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