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Last Updated: Monday, 3 October 2005, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Q&A: What's behind French strikes?
Protest in January 2005 against French government privatisation plans
The country is braced for renewed disruption
After a period of relative calm in French labour relations, strikers are taking to the streets again, putting pressure on the four-month-old administration of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

BBC News looks at the background to France's continuing industrial unrest in the face of cautious government attempts at reform.


Why the strikes?

Tension has been building since the centre-right government of President Jacques Chirac started to overhaul the country's social security system and labour market.

"There is a background that is common for everyone and some specific interests that have triggered the social unrest," explains Stephane Deo, chief European economist at UBS in London.

In an effort to cut state spending, the government wants to increase the individual's responsibility for pension and healthcare payments.

Policymakers have already made it less attractive for employees to retire at 60 and increased the importance and availability of private pension schemes.

They also intend to limit the amount of money people can claim for health treatments and medicines.

The 35-hour working week is under fire and is being blamed for sluggish economic growth.

On top of that, public sector pay has stagnated over recent years, leaving many workers feeling that economic growth is leaving them behind, analysts said.

Are the strikes popular?

French unions say that they have the public's support and claim that the general public are against the current direction of economic liberalisation.

Many analysts say, however, that there is a growing realisation that painful changes need to be made.

The country's budget deficit is running above European Union limits despite reassurances by Paris that it will be brought under control.

And with an ageing population, France has little choice but to ring the changes, they argue.

Economic growth has been slowing and a lack of reform has often been cited as a key reason for Europe lagging behind the US and its bustling economy.

Germany and Italy are also having to go through a difficult period of transformation.

Will the industrial action force the government to change its plans?

Difficult to say. The pension reforms were passed in 2003 despite widespread protest.

However, strike action earlier this year led to the downfall of Mr de Villepin's predecessor as Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Since Mr de Villepin took office at the end of May, he has enjoyed something of a honeymoon with voters and his popularity ratings have been high.

But his government's plans to sell off the state-owned SNCM ferry company have already led to an upsurge in trade union militancy.

The government has swiftly backtracked to some extent on that move, by saying it will retain a 25% stake in the firm.

And with newspapers describing the latest unrest as "clouds gathering on the horizon" for Mr de Villepin, the prime minister must be aware that he could easily suffer the same fate as Mr Raffarin.


SEE ALSO
French power workers stage strike
24 Jun 04 |  Business
French power strikers target PM
15 Jun 04 |  Business
Strike hits French nuclear plants
16 Jun 04 |  Business

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