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French press review 17 March 2018

As Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to get his job at the helm rubber-stamped for another term, Western government close ranks against him. And the French rail unions prepare for war with the government. There will be tears.


In its print edition Le Monde's main headline reads "United front against Putin raises Cold War ghosts".

The members of the united front are Washington, Paris, Berlin and London. The reasons for the chill are many: most recently the apparent assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy in England, but also the still-unresolved accusations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Sanctions of various sorts are being considered.

Putin has been keeping his head down. The Russian leader doesn't want anything to distract voters from tomorrow's presidential election. Putin is sure to win but he needs a healthy turn-out to bolster his position.

Cynical, cold, efficient and audacious; how bad is that?

Le Figaro looks at the various reigns of Vladimir Putin, seeing a man who has kept himself at the top of the pile for nearly two decades whose methods have become increasingly muscular. If he remains popular at home, Putin is hardly flavour of the month for most Western governments.

The right-wing daily's editorial points out that the Russian leader tends to provoke extreme reactions. Those who love him love him a lot, while the others do the opposite with equal enthusiasm.

Putin is cynical, cold, efficient and audacious. Those are either terms of praise or blame, depending on whether you admire the man or are at risk of becoming one of his victims.

He has certainly reestablished Russia as a global force but his vast nation still struggles to reach the gross national product of Italy.

Western governments have got to take him seriously, warns Le Figaro, and remember that diplomacy is the business of interstate relationships before it is an exchange between the men and women who run the various states.

I'm not sure that explanation helps very much, but there it is.

Who are you calling a pampered employee?

The electronic version of Le Monde looks at the retirement conditions of employees of the national rail company, SNCF, currently the target of government reform.

The railworkers are frequently pilloried as pampered. Le Monde says they do get to retire earlier than the rest of French workers, with better pensions. And, yes, that imbalance does cost the state a fortune.

The facts are stark. There are more retired employees than actual workers in the French rail system: 260,000 pensioners for just 150,000 workers. The former workers have a special retirement deal which is anything but covered by employee contributions. In 2016 the government had to cough up 3.3 billion euros to bridge the gap.

The reason there are so many retirees is that railworkers get to take the long holiday at the age of 52 for drivers, 57 for office workers. The rest of us have to struggle on, on average, to 62 years and five months before we're let out to graze.

And the railworkers retire with three-quarters of the salary of their final six months, plus bonuses. The rest of us get three-quarters of the average over 25 years.

In cash terms, the average French worker retires with 1,376 euros per month, the average rail worker with 2,063 euros per month.

Emmanuel Macron says the system in unjust. He promised to change it when he was campaigning for the presidency, so that we all pay the same amount to cover our retirement and benefit to the same degree.

The rail unions have promised to fight him tooth and nail.

And how do you like them teeth and nails?

Speaking of which, Le Figaro says the strike formula chosen by those same unions - two days of strike, three days of work, two more days of strike, change partners, dance to the left . . . is nastily brilliant: it will cost the strikers a minimum while maximising the annoyance for would-be passengers. Says Le Figaro, even on non-strike days, the level of disruption is going to be spectacular. And the strike programme is scheduled for no less than three months, from April to June.

The unions are delighted. With this innovative system, they can keep up the pressure for 12 weeks, without seeing striking members starve. And, since it always takes at least a day to get the trains running properly again after a work stoppage, they'll get three days' disruption for two days' lost pay.

And the situation is further complicated by the fact that Sud-Rail, the third largest union in the transport sector, have proimised to join the strike, but on a day-to-day basis, with no non-strike pauses.

This could be the year a lot of French commuters decide to invest in a bicycle.

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