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Analysis: Sarkozy faces first big test

  • Story Highlights
  • Strikes crippling France's transport network provide a big test for Sarkozy
  • In 1995 strikes over public service reform continued for three weeks
  • But the majority of the public appear to be backing the president's plans
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From CNN's Jim Bittermann
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- The strikes crippling France's transport network are a big test for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but it is unlikely they will inflict the same damage to the government as those in 1995.

Opinion polls show the majority of the public back Sarkozy's plans.

The pension reform is one Sarkozy talked about in the lead up to the presidential election, in which he won by a large majority.

The background to the reforms date to World War II -- when exceptions were made to the normal pension plan to allow people who worked in hazardous jobs to retire early.

At the time, train divers were still shoveling coal and their life expectancy was not as long -- as a consequence they were granted early retirement, some at age 50.

But of course now they are sitting in electric computerized cabs, while still benefiting from early retirement.

There are some oddball groups also affected, such as dancers at the opera. Some retire as early as 40 because somewhere along the line it was judged that as dancers they were not able to maintain careers beyond that age.

One problem with this is that some people in these groups would take their state pension, but then seek employment in another field.

The two exceptions to the current reform are fisherman and miners, because they continue to have hazardous jobs.

Basically the reforms aim to correct what is perceived to be inequalities, and part of the reason they were prompted is because the government is heavily indebted and they need to find ways to cut back.

You've got in the case of this reform 500,000 people who are actively working and more than a million who are retired, and it's costing the government quite a bit.

Two out of three opinion polls show a large majority -- around 60 percent -- do support the government. Only one other poll, done for a communist newspaper showed 51 percent support the strike.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy has also hit the front pages with news confirming that he and his wife Cecilia are separating, ending weeks of speculation over the marriage.

But the real question for the strikes will be whether this goes on beyond today.

A couple of unions have filed notice that they may want to continue striking.

When this was last tried in 1995 it led to a three-week strike that forced the then PM to retreat and the reforms failed.

The difference now is that because the government has focused heavily on this pension reform plan it only effects a narrow population. So it probably has less damaging potential this time around and less public sympathy this time.

In 1995 the support for government was 40 percent, this time it is 60 percent. It is still a big test for Sarkozy and it's a pretty uncertain situation. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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