Commuters struggle to work as transport strike bites

18th October 2007, Comments 0 comments

18 October 2007, PARIS (AFP) - French commuters struggled to work Thursday as public transport workers put President Nicolas Sarkozy's reform plans to the test with a 24 hour strike in defence of historic pensions privileges.

18 October 2007

PARIS (AFP) - French commuters struggled to work Thursday as public transport workers put President Nicolas Sarkozy's reform plans to the test with a 24 hour strike in defence of historic pensions privileges.

Nationwide rail traffic was at a near standstill with just 46 TGV high-speed trains running out of the normal 700, and the platforms of main line stations were almost empty of passengers.

In Paris, where metro and bus networks laid on a skeleton service, motorists hoping to beat the traffic with a pre-dawn drive to work quickly found themselves bumper-to-bumper with others of the same mind.

The capital's new Velib self-service bicycle scheme was a hugely popular commuting option, and competition was fierce for any bicycles left at the service stations dotted around the city.

For thousands of others, the best option was to don some comfortable shoes and simply walk to the office.

The main Gare du Nord train station -- the largest in Europe in terms of passenger traffic -- was largely deserted, apart from four trains from the Eurostar service to London, which suffered a number of cancellations.

Rail links into the capital from its two airports were also down, causing some passengers to spend Wednesday night camped out in terminals so as to be sure of getting their morning flights.

Travellers had been urged to postpone their journeys and many Paris commuters made arrangements to take the day off or work from home.

The strike, which kicked off Wednesday evening, came as France prepared to host Saturday's final of the rugby World Cup, with tens of thousands of British and South African fans expected in the capital.

Street demonstrations were planned in some 60 towns and cities, as trade unions try to force Sarkozy to drop plans to reform France's so-called "special" pension systems enjoyed by 1.6 million rail, energy and other workers.

Invoking social equity, the president has begun moves to lengthen contribution periods for these workers from 37.5 years to 40, closer in line with other public and private sector employees. Currently some railway staff can retire on a full pension at the age of 50.

The protest movement is seen as the first major challenge to the head of state, who has promised a root-and-branch overhaul of the country's economy and society.

The last time a government tried to change the "special" pensions regimes was in 1995, when then prime minister Alain Juppe was forced into a humiliating climbdown by three weeks of strikes and street protests.

But Sarkozy's government insists that conditions have moved on in the last 12 years and that most French people now accept the reform.

"There are some reforms that everyone knows should have been implemented but which never have been. Well, we are going to go ahead and do it, calmly but firmly," Sarkozy said Tuesday.

Asked whether Thursday's protests could herald another mass movement like that of 1995, Prime Minister Francois Fillon quoted the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: "No man ever steps in the same river twice."

But Bernard Thibault of the General Labour Confederation (CGT) said more strikes would take place unless the government amends its proposals.

"These workers are fed up with being constantly portrayed as privileged or in some way guilty on the issue of pensions," he said.

AFP

Subject: French news

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