- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

PARIS (AP) — A French government plan to scrap an annual springtime holiday in favor of a “Day of Solidarity” with the elderly seemed like a good idea when the law was passed — and the extra workday was far in the future.

But the end to a coveted day off has not gone down well among the leisure-loving French, and now a spectrum of workers across the country is prepared to stay off the job to protest the decision.

Today’s national “Day of Solidarity” — an extra workday in place of the annual Pentecost holiday — was part of the government’s response to a 2003 heat wave that killed 15,000 people, most elderly.

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.

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

Unlike other holidays, the traditional day off on the Monday after the Christian festival of Pentecost falls on the same week of the year, making it easier for groups and families to plan getaways or activities each year.

Making matters worse this year: Two other annual holidays on May 1 and May 8 fell on Sundays — meaning no day off.

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.

A poll published yesterday in regional weekly Dimanche Ouest France indicated that 55 percent of the French do not plan on going to work today.

Jean-Francois Cope, spokesman for the center-right government, insisted the workday would be respected “for the most part” and played down the figures. The survey of 1,016 adults was conducted by phone on Thursday and Friday; no margin of error was given.

“Many, many French understand that if this measure was taken, it’s simply because there is a lot at stake,” Mr. Cope told France-Inter radio. “I know for the moment it’s causing some people to grit their teeth. That’s normal.”

Few knew just who would turn up for work — or where. Transport authorities in 90 towns and cities warned of crippling strikes, but the Paris subway operator said trains would be running close to normal.

Compounding the confusion is a private-sector exemption. Automaker Renault and 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 increased holiday rates for service today.

The government expects the extra workday to reap about $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 $7.5 billion” per year, he said.

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