Confusion, strikes await as French protest scrapping of national holiday

Postal employees, bus drivers, school teachers and a spectrum of other workers across France stayed off the job Monday to protest the government's decision to scrap an annual holiday.

Under a new law, workers give up a holiday, while their employers pay into a government fund to improve health care for the aged and handicapped.

But for the leisure-loving French, the end to a coveted springtime holiday has not gone down well.

Transportation in up to 90 cities and towns across France was disrupted.

Bus service in Paris was scaled back because of protesting drivers. In several major cities there were no buses or subways at all, including Lille, Strasbourg and Bordeaux, France-Info reported.

A poll published Sunday in the regional weekly Dimanche Ouest France indicated that 55 percent of the French did not plan on going to work Monday.

A plurality of respondents were counting the day against their annual number of holidays; others said their businesses were closing, and some said they were going to strike.

In recent months, anger over the plan has become intermingled with discontent over issues ranging from high unemployment to budget cuts.

At first, it seemed like a good idea to close ranks with the growing numbers of elderly in France. But with the approach of the now-former holiday, public disgruntlement has swelled.

"On Monday, the government is going to feel the backlash from a totally unilateral measure made against the advice of unions and seen by workers as unjust, ineffective and hypocritical," said Maryse Dumas, the No. 2 official at the Communist-backed CGT union.

Compounding the confusion is a private-sector exemption. Automaker Renault and the bank Societe Generale were giving their employees a day off, while retailer La Redoute was scrapping the holiday. Unions at Air France and France Telecom called on members to strike.

Taxi drivers' unions and a doctors' federation called on their members to apply holiday rates for service on Monday, which will add an extra pinch to clients' pocketbooks.

The government expects the extra work day to reap about Ђ2 billion (US$2.5 billion) a year in additional revenue for health care.

The health minister says even that is too little.

"The needs are considerable," Philippe Douste-Blazy told Radio-J. "It's really on the scale of closer to Ђ6 billion ($7.5 billion)" per year.

JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press

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