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French unions gear up to battle Sarkozy

Now, Nicolas Sarkozy has a chance to show what he is done of. Even before he was elected president, France's powerful unions warned that his proposed labor reforms could spark strikes.

Sarkozy's summertime honeymoon with the French looks set to cool into an autumn of discontent, as unions line up for long-feared strikes over his plans to pare generous benefits enjoyed by state workers.

Sarkozy hit unions with two long-awaited reform plans this week. On Tuesday, he proposed ending special benefits enjoyed by some state workers, like retirement as early as age 50 for employees at the state-run railway operator.

On Wednesday, he called for a "revolution" in the broader public service sector by 2012, hoping to inject private sector tactics - such as buying out worker contracts and not replacing one in two retirees - to trim bureaucracy.

"The public sector reform calls into question the very foundation of public service," said Luc Rouban, an expert in government reform at Cevipof political science center. "It's a very complex subject."

Sarkozy is gambling his high approval ratings in a bid to catch unions on the back foot: His party controls parliament for the next five years, the opposition is in disarray, and unions haven't had a labor pact with the government since 1998.

But even some in his own ranks are grumbling at Sarkozy's determination. Prime Minister Francois Fillon, known for skill at negotiating tough reforms, has bristled over how the energetic president has referred to him as a simple "collaborator."

Even during Sarkozy's campaign to victory on May 6, unions warned that his pledges to cut costs by trimming the state sector would meet with resistance if he was elected.

Five of eight unions representing state-run railway workers announced strikes for Oct. 17 against reforming the "special regimes" - or special benefits - which polls show many French people support.

But the thornier issue will be public service reform, which would affect much of France's very large state sector. Sarkozy sought to sweeten the pill in announcing his plan in a speech Wednesday, calling the French public sector "one of the most remarkable in the world" for its quality.

Rouban said the French are likely to see through that.

"The French people are always demanding more public service workers, whether in hospitals, for example, or in state-run child care, where there is a staffing shortage," he said. "So public opinion won't be behind him on this reform."

The new president is looking to avoid the pitfalls that met President Jacques Chirac's conservative government in 1995, when he, too, came into office promising sweeping labor reform. The result of his first big reform push, involving retirement rights, was sweeping strikes that led to the rise of a Socialist-led government two years later.

Sarkozy was to speak about his labor reforms in a nationally televised interview Thursday night.

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