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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
France's 'Miss Thatcher'
Striker in France
Pension reform is at the heart of the debate
A 21-year-old French student has been dubbed "Mademoiselle Thatcher" after becoming one of the leaders of the anti-strike movement in the country.

Sabine Herold has been lauded by some - and attacked by others - for her attitude of "enough is enough" after the latest wave of strikes following a dispute over public sector pension reform.

She is highly critical of those on strike, arguing that they are ignoring the will of the democratically-elected government.

That argument is reminiscent of former UK Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher, who famously took on the trade unions in Britain in the 1980s, curbing their power having been elected following the crippling strikes during the "winter of discontent" in 1978.

What French people think of the pension reforms and strikes

"I'm fed up with strikes because there are many people who just want to go to work," Ms Herold told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"We're not against the right to strike. We're saying that if you have the right to strike you have a duty to let other people not on strike go to work."

'People are hostages'

Ms Herold said her personal frustration with the picketers stemmed from living in Paris, one of the areas most affected by the strikes.

"There is no public transport, so you can't go to work or university," she said.

Margaret Thatcher
Mrs Thatcher took on the unions in the 1980s
"Many people live in the suburbs and have to work in the centre of Paris, or in other suburbs, and they can't take the underground or the train.

"They can't go to work, or they have to wake up three or four hours earlier."

She said her movement was acquiring support by the day.

"I think people at the beginning thought the strikes were right and defending important rights," she stressed.

"But after maybe a month of strikes, people got completely fed up because they felt they were taken as hostages.

"People started rebelling at the end of May, and it became really strong by mid-June."

Right-wing triumph?

She added that the strikers were so vociferous because of the triumph of the French right wing under Jacques Chirac in last year's troubled presidential elections.

"The unions go on the street because they oppose any work done by the government," she said.

"In fact these people just refuse democracy and the outcome of the vote. I think it is more important to respect democracy and what the majority of the people decided, and not what a minority of unionists want."

But trade unionists dismiss this argument, saying that Ms Herold has her own agenda.

"I think we need to look a bit behind the movement and what this grouping is about," Tim Noonan from the International Confederation of Trade Unions told Outlook.

French President Jacques Chirac
Ms Herold says the strikers are angry with the triumph of the French right
"It's essentially a party political grouping - that's been clear in the line that they've put, and in the composition of their demonstrations.

"Mademoiselle Herold has said herself publicly that she's looking for a political career."

He added that he felt that the French Government did not have a mandate simply to impose whatever laws it wished, despite Ms Herold's argument.

"She's saying to people: 'Forget about your pension rights and forget about the fact that you've now been told you have to work many years extra - there's been an election so you don't have any rights'," Mr Noonan said.

"It's that kind of attitude which forces workers to move to that ultimate resort.

"People don't go on strike for no reason - the reality is that people in France have been promised a retirement which is a decent retirement, and now they've been told that's being taken away from them."

French strikes falter
19 Jun 03  |  Europe
French teachers step up pressure
22 May 03  |  Europe
French push to tackle pensions
03 Feb 03  |  Europe

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