On the eve of a crippling strike by public employees, union leaders were divided Monday over Premier Alain Juppe’s austerity plan.
Juppe is squeezed between the need to match European Union guidelines - by slashing a $65 billion budget deficit - and the demands of militant public workers unwilling to pay the price.
That price includes layoffs, salary freezes, higher taxes and other unpopular measures.
A huge part of the deficit is the debt-plagued Social Security system, which covers health care and pensions. To fill that $12 billion hole, Juppe plans to raise taxes and make public workers contribute to the system for an extra 2 years, matching the 40 years that private-sector workers now pay into the system.
Railroad workers, angered by plans to close unprofitable lines and lay off workers, have been on strike since Friday. On Tuesday, they are to be joined by other public workers - a 5-million-strong lobby that includes railroad conductors, telephone technicians, mail sorters, teachers, pilots, and air traffic controllers.
The government said late Monday it was exempting France’s 182,000 railroad workers from the extension on social security payments, but the strike was expected to go on as scheduled.
“It is a showdown,” said Christine Fontane, a financial adviser to Juppe.
Nicole Notat, leader of France’s No. 2 union, the French Democratic Confederation of Workers, backed Friday’s walkout but favors at least some of Juppe’s social security overhaul.
That prompted howls of betrayal by the No. 1 and No. 3 unions, the Communist-led General Confederation of Workers and Workers Force that are leading Tuesday’s strike.