French strike a warning shot on wider pension reform

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PARIS, Oct 17 (Reuters) A nationwide strike by transport and energy workers tomorrow over a reform of their generous pensions is just the first shot in a larger battle expected over plans to review the entire French pensions system next year.

Union leaders hope a large turnout and widespread transport chaos will strengthen their hand ahead of the crucial 2008 negotiations and are anxious to show President Nicolas Sarkozy that the labour movement is still a force to be reckoned with.

The government is quietly confident that it will prevail in the first major labour dispute of the Sarkozy era, with public opinion firmly in favour of a reform of the so-called special pension regimes, which are enjoyed by a minority of workers.

But union leaders are keen to stress that tomorrow's protest is just the start of a much broader struggle against a centre-right administration eager to shake up France.

''They want to condemn all the public and private sector workers in our country to a drastic cut in pensions,'' Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union said on Tuesday.

''It's the union's responsibility not to accept such a view.'' The long-standing special regimes were designed to reward workers in arduous jobs or those involved in the post-war rebuilding effort.

They apply to just 6 percent of all pensions, allowing the beneficiaries to retire after just 37.5 years of work rather than 40 years for most other pensions.

If it manages to harmonise the two schemes, the government has made clear it will then look at changes to the whole pensions system with an eye to increasing the savings time to 41 years to ensure it stays viable as the population ages.

Unions fear that if they are brushed aside over the special regimes they might struggle to prevent subsequent reforms.

''We know that behind this line from the government is the reform in 2008, which will move us to 41 years,'' said Jean-Luc Gironde, spokesman for the Force Ouvriere Union.

''After that, anything could happen.'' FALLING NUMBERS The last attempt to reform the special regimes ended in miserable failure in 1995 following massive union protests.

Learning its lesson from that setback, Sarkozy's government has repeatedly stressed that it remains open to dialogue with unions while firmly rejecting the possibility of a U-turn on the core issue of pension harmonisation.

''This is not 1995, it's 2007. France has changed, the terms of the debate, including the terms of the political debate, have changed,'' government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez said, adding that Sarkozy would not back down in the fight.

Many commentators expect the unions will concede ground over the special regimes once they have proved they can still mobilise their members and paralyse France.

Buoyed by a strong turnout tomorrow, they will then seek a broader trade off in other areas, including the 2008 pension review and a reform of trade union legislation to encourage more workers to join their movement.

The CGT union has around 700,000 members, down from one million in the 1970s, while only about 8 per cent of all workers belong to a union, far lower than many other European countries.

''There is an urgency for there to be a reform of the law on unionism before the pension talks start,'' said Jacques Delallee, spokesman for the CGT union.

REUTERS RSA RAI2045

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