France’s trade unions warned on Monday of widespread strike action if the government pressed ahead with reform of pension privileges for hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers.
After three months of quiescence towards President Nicolas Sarkozy and his centre-right government, union leaders said there would be “major conflict” if changes were imposed without their agreement.
Mr Sarkozy said on Monday he was determined to end the pension privileges, an anomaly allowing 500,000 workers in state enterprises and certain professions to retire earlier and on better terms than most other employees in the private or public sectors. “I was elected to put in place deep reforms to modernise France and those reforms will be completed,” he said on a visit to Germany.
Mr Sarkozy is expected to give the go-ahead for reform of the pension arrangements in a speech next week.
Although the government insists it will try to find agreement with unions, Mr Sarkozy wants the changes to take place by the end of the year, earlier than he had originally planned.
Success would be a feather in his cap ahead of local elections in March next year. It would strengthen his modernising credentials after a rapid but modest first wave of changes introduced since he was elected president in May.
Ending the costly pension privileges benefits would also be symbolically important. An attempt at reform in 1995 was abandoned after millions of people took to the streets in a month of strike action, scuppering the government of Alain Juppé.
This time the government believes it is better placed to succeed.
The pension schemes in question are saddled with growing deficits and have to be bailed out by taxpayers who do not enjoy the same benefits. Privileges that were granted to compensate for the rigours of manual labour can no longer be justified, ministers believe.
The benefits include shorter contribution periods, earlier retirement ages and favourable contribution rates. For example, train drivers are able to retire on a full pension as young as 50.
The government wants to bring these schemes into line with those elsewhere in the public and private sector, with retirement at 60 and a full pension after 40 years of contributions, although it has yet to set out the detail.
Whereas opinion polls suggested strong public opposition to change in 1995, ministers believe the public mood has shifted. Some opposition Socialists have begun to argue that privileges are indefensible.
The government has also prepared the ground for possible confrontation by passing a law requiring a minimum level of service in public transport in the case of strike action. However, this does not come into effect until next year.
Mr Sarkozy is expected to give the green light to the changes in a speech next week.