French Workers stay at home for Whit Monday

Monday, May 16, 2005

In France, workers by the millions stayed at home during the Whit Monday holiday despite the government's cancellation of the traditional Pentecost public holiday. Some acted in defiance of the government's decision, while some took leave or were put on forced leave by their employers due to uncertainties of public transportation.

Following the 2003 heat wave, which caused the deaths of an estimated 13,000 elderly people in France, the administration of prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has proposed the suppression of one day of public holiday in order to use the supplemental generated tax for a fund for the caring of the elderly.

Whit Monday was selected because, in normal years, France has several public holidays in May. Furthermore, attendance of religious celebrations is low, so holidays of a religious origin are nowadays generally mere family reunions.

However, the reception of this new working day was mixed. The administration says it promotes solidarity with the elderly. Trade unions and opposition groups argue that the measure is an ill-conceived stunt aimed at hiding the government's bad handling of the problems of the elderly.

For instance, many remember that in 1956, the government created a tax (the vignette) on motor vehicles, allegedly for funding measures for the elderly. But in 1973, the products of this tax came, as any other tax, into the government's general fund.

With this measure, the French government intends to raise 2 billion to be donated to a new public establishment, the "national fund for solidarity for autonomy." The new fund would be chartered to deal with losses of self-sufficiency of elderly or handicapped people. 1.2 billion € are earmarked for elderly people, 0.8 for the handicapped.

Trade unions had called for strikes in urban public transportation and paralyzed traffic in 27 cities, including Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Montpellier ou Strasbourg. However, SNCF (the national railway operator) did not strike and RATP (the Paris transportation authority) suffered only minor disturbances, though both are normally known for their frequent and disturbing strikes.

SNCF considered the day as a holiday for payroll purposes and instead increased the work day by 1'52", a measure that majority leader Nicolas Sarkozy considered shocking and contrary to the objectives of the government.

The protests are also widely considered to be motivated by the unpopularity of the administration of president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Recent statistics show a five year-high for unemployment at 10.2%.

This discontent may result in a majority of "no" in the vote for the ratification of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.