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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
'Holiday' strike cripples Nantes
By Henri Astier
BBC News, Nantes, France

Nantes
People on strike were also affected by disrupted transport

Thousands of workers in the western French city of Nantes have stayed at home on Pentecost Monday, to protest against a government decision to scrap the traditional bank holiday.

"This city is dead, there's hardly anyone around," says Gregory Bonnet, owner of the Bar du Gaz in the city centre, staring disconsolately around his empty establishment at lunchtime.

Across France, millions of people have decided not to work, in protest at what critics call an "extra day of compulsory labour".

However, many others have turned up for work, accepting the government's argument that an extra day is needed to help finance social programmes.

In Nantes, almost half the shops in the city centre remained shut. About 50% of postal delivery workers either took the day off or went on strike, and public transport was seriously disrupted.

"We've been waiting for a tram for an hour," said two middle-aged women. "Normally they come here every five minutes."

'Hypocrisy'

However, neither seemed angry at being forced to wait for a lift in the hot, noon-day sun.

"We support the transport strike," one said. "Why should anyone be forced to work an extra day for nothing? It's always the same ones who have to pay. We are on strike ourselves. We should be at work."

Empty cafe in Nantes
This city is dead, there's hardly anyone around
Gregory Bonnet,
bar owner

The two school canteen workers said 90% of staff at their local school were also staying away.

An English teacher from another school, Mady Jaconelli, was also on strike.

"My colleagues and I were going to go out to lunch together - but we decided against it as we didn't want to make work for the restaurant staff," she said as she bought a sandwich from a street vendor.

Their feelings are shared by many across the country.

Jean Laurente, an automobile worker from Lille, in northern France, said: "It's outrageous. Why don't they ask the rich to pay?"

"The government is being totally hypocritical," said Silvina Fernandez, a nurse from Bourges.

"They say we need to work to help the vulnerable - but they're just cheating us out of a rest day."

Heatwave shock

The decision to scrap the bank holiday was taken following the furore over the deaths of almost 15,000 people - mostly pensioners - in a 2003 heatwave.

The idea was to ask people to contribute more to help pensioners and the disabled, who suffered most that summer.

Striker gives pensioner a rose
The government wanted workers to help subsidise care for the elderly
At first the principle was widely accepted.

But there was an outcry earlier this year, when the government announced that in the absence of agreement in individual industries, the Pentecost Monday holiday would have to go.

Polls suggest that two-thirds of French people oppose the decision. This, however, leaves many who support it.

"The decision does not shock me," said Lydia Blondel, 25, a travel agent employee in Nantes. "I'm working today - it's only one day out of 365 after all and we all have to do our bit."

Manon Besserve, 26, an optician's assistant, agreed.

"One day I too will be old and need help. I'll be happy if others are willing to pay to look after me."

The holiday row comes at an awkward time for the centre-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin - less than two weeks before a finely poised referendum on the proposed European Constitution.

The government is campaigning for a Yes vote, but it is facing strong resistance from both the hard left and the far right.

Left-wing opponents of the government may be divided on the constitution issue - but on the scrapped bank holiday they are united in their determination to embarrass the administration.




SEE ALSO:
French protest at holiday axing
29 Apr 05 |  Europe


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