, PARIS, Sep 6 – French teachers went on strike Monday on the eve of a nationwide general stoppage called by trade unions opposed to President Nicolas Sarkozy\’s plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.
A third of secondary school teachers did not turn up for work, unions said, but officials said only six percent of them went on strike to protest the slashing of 7,000 jobs in education and other reform plans in the sector.
Teachers and other private and public sector workers were to join protests Tuesday that unions said would see hundreds of thousands take to the streets to fight pension plans that are a cornerstone of Sarkozy\’s reforms.
The demonstrations come as the right-wing president limps into the last two years of his first term weakened by scandal and dismal opinion poll ratings.
They are timed to fall on the same day that the French parliament begins debate on a draft pension reform law, which is to be presented by Sarkozy\’s embattled labour minister Eric Woerth.
The bill would increase France\’s minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, which would still leave it low by international standards but would reverse a cherished and emblematic Socialist reform.
"If this week is decisive, it is because Sarkozy, by attacking one of the biggest totems of the left, is also attacking a bygone era when governments thought they could spend without counting," said Le Figaro daily.
CGT union leader Bernard Thibault said he believed that even more people would turn out for the 190 marches planned in cities across France than in June, when more than 800,000 took part in demonstrations.
"We may have an exceptional day and, if it is exceptional, we will perhaps be at a turning point," he told France Inter radio.
Widespread disruption was expected in transport, government, industry, banks and postal services.
Just two out of five TGV high-speed trains were expected to run, with reduced service on many other lines, state railway operator SNCF said. But Eurostar trains between Paris and London were expected to run normally.
An Obea/Infra Forces opinion poll said 73 percent of French approved of the protest marches. But the poll also showed 65 percent thought the government would not change course.
Sarkozy hopes to make pension reform the key measure of the final two years of his first mandate and the start of an electoral fightback, but it comes after a politically disastrous summer.
Woerth, the minister tasked with pushing the bill through parliament, has been weakened by a series of allegations surrounding his links to France\’s richest woman, L\’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
The president has stood by him publicly, and the minister denies any wrongdoing or conflict of interest in his role as ruling party fundraiser, but the scandal rumbles on and several judicial probes are under way.
Sarkozy has also sparked international outrage and incensed the French left and human rights groups with a crackdown on Roma immigrants and threats to strip foreign-born criminals of French citizenship.
Voters tell pollsters they approve of the crackdown, but this has failed to translate into a fillip for Sarkozy\’s own ratings.
Likewise most voters say they believe pension reform is necessary, but again this fails to translate into improved ratings for the president.
There is little sign Sarkozy is ready to back down, even if his chief of staff Claude Gueant said Sunday the government would propose amendments to the law this week.
France is running a huge public deficit and government thinks raising the retirement age could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030.
A minimum retirement age of 60 is well under the average of 64 in the OECD group of wealthy industrialised democracies, despite France having one of the world\’s longest life expectancies.