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Archive for Friday, October 19, 2007

Sarkozy divorce overshadows transit strike

October 19, 2007

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A man hitchhikes while another rides his bicycle Thursday in Paris. A public transport strike billed as France's biggest in years was in full swing, with commuters forced to walk, pedal or drive to work in large numbers, and many are thought to have stayed home.

A man hitchhikes while another rides his bicycle Thursday in Paris. A public transport strike billed as France's biggest in years was in full swing, with commuters forced to walk, pedal or drive to work in large numbers, and many are thought to have stayed home.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia are shown in this July 14, 2004, file photo. The couple are separating by mutual consent after 11 years of marriage, the French president's office said Thursday. News of the couple's divorce overshadowed that of a 24-hour French transportation strike.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia are shown in this July 14, 2004, file photo. The couple are separating by mutual consent after 11 years of marriage, the French president's office said Thursday. News of the couple's divorce overshadowed that of a 24-hour French transportation strike.

— On the same day that a massive strike crippled public transportation here, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, announced the end of their marriage.

On both fronts, the president remained silent Thursday.

Of the one-day strike challenging Sarkozy's plan to reform France's public sector, Sarkozy had no comment as he left for a European Union meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. Of his plans to divorce, he spoke only through official papers, released twice by the Elysee Palace, saying there would be no comment.

The Sarkozys had appeared before a judge Monday in the Paris suburb of Nanterre to ask for a divorce by "mutual agreement," according to their lawyer, Michele Cahen, who told reporters that "Everything went well. ... I was both of their lawyers, and I couldn't have been if there had been a disagreement."

There was, however, plenty of speculation about whether the Elysee had chosen the day of a long-planned challenge to Sarkozy's presidency to confirm the breakup, diverting the media to the details of an imploding marriage.

Since Sarkozy came into office six months ago, Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz, 49, has shown little interest in the job of first wife, appearing only sporadically at his side. But all day Thursday scenes from happier times in the 11-year marriage of the president and the former model streamed across the television news, relegating the headlines on the strike to the bottom of the screen. Footage of 20,000 union members marching on a sunny day from Paris' famed Place de la Republique hardly turned up.

Some of the president's opponents relished the gossip, with one communist weekly running a cartoon of a scowling Mrs. Sarkozy with her fist up and the caption, "Cecilia on unlimited strike!"

Others, however, attempted to right the priorities of the country. "Today, the main news isn't the divorce," said Francois Hollande, head of the Left's Socialist Party. "It's a strike that had a considerable following and which gave hope that after this movement there might be some real negotiation."

For the duration of the 24-hour strike, the national rail service ground to a halt, subways in Paris hardly operated, buses were nowhere in sight, taxis were scarce, the opera was canceled and many museums never opened. The cross-Channel "Eurostar" train ran on a slightly reduced schedule. The people most determined to get to work either walked, roller-bladed or competed for 30,000 rental bicycles recently provided on city streets.

Thursday's union confrontation was aimed at a proposal by Sarkozy to reduce "special regime" pensions that allow 1.7 million rail, utility and other workers to retire at 50, and that cost French taxpayers 7 billion euros annually.

Union leaders fear these retirement benefits will fall victim to Sarkozy's larger scheme to remap the pension system and enact broader reforms.

Lorenzo, a 28-year-old train driver who would not give his last name, said it was a "French tradition" for individuals to defend their working rights but admitted that he was not sure that a strike would work this time. "This is France; we had The Revolution," he said. "We know we'll lose our advantages anyway, but we want to slow things down."

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