Nationwide strikes in France against Sarkozy

Paris–Nationwide strikes in France hobbled public services from transport to schools Tuesday, with unions hoping their action would put the brakes on reforms planned by President Nicolas Sarkozy two days after his party’s stinging defeat in regional elections.

But the new labor minister, Eric Woerth, vowed to move ahead with reforming the "extremely fragile" pension system, the most critical change expected.

Unions say Sarkozy’s conservative government hasn’t offered satisfactory plans on jobs, salaries, purchasing power and working conditions — and they hope to hammer home that message in the wake of Sunday’s runoff elections.

Sarkozy reshuffled his government Tuesday in a quick response to the electoral defeat, notably replacing Labor Minister Xavier Darcos, who was trounced in the voting and considered to have lost the legitimacy needed to continue the contested reforms.

Minor adjustments were also made to the government with Sarkozy bringing in two conservatives aligned with the president’s rivals in his own camp to solidify his political base.

The Socialists swept regional elections, taking 23 of France’s 26 regions.

"We must maintain the goal which is that of reform. The nation needs to be competitive, to (create) the jobs of tomorrow," said Woerth, former budget minister. He was replaced in that post by Francois Baroin, aligned with former President Jacques Chirac.

Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union, said the changes were a "bad sign about the government’s social commitment.

"They zap the labor minister as if it were a technical ministry with less importance," he said on France-Inter radio, noting that France has its fourth labor minister since Sarkozy took office in 2007.

Tuesday’s transport strike was an aggravation, not a catastrophe, for Parisians, with only minimal disruptions to the subway system.

Fast trains to Britain and Belgium were running normally, but only 65 percent of traffic was being guaranteed within France.

An estimated 30 percent of primary school teachers failed to show up for class nationwide, the Education Ministry said, with around 18 percent out in junior high schools and 11 percent out in high schools.

France-Info radio, the news station, was partially hit by the job action, interspersing its usual broadcasts with periods of music.

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