France hit by transport chaos as unions confront Sarkozy
14 November 2007, PARIS - France plunged into travel chaos for the second time in a month Wednesday as striking transport workers halted trains and buses in their face-off with President Nicolas Sarkozy over reforms.
14 November 2007
PARIS - France plunged into travel chaos for the second time in a month Wednesday as striking transport workers halted trains and buses in their face-off with President Nicolas Sarkozy over reforms.
Train drivers at the state SNCF rail company stopped work on Tuesday night and the shutdown was extended on Wednesday to Paris metro trains and the state gas and electricity companies.
More than 300 kilometres of traffic jams were reported on roads heading into Paris, twice the daily average.
Many suburban commuters took hotel rooms near the offices to avoid the nightmare commute, others left home before dawn but still got caught in jams. Cyclists flooded the streets and office workers took to roller blades and scooters to avoid the traffic.
The Eurostar train from Paris to London's new St Pancras station was set to leave on time however.
Paris metro operator RATP reported subway lines operating at around 20 percent capacity and bus routes at around 15 percent. "That's better than expected," said an RATP spokesman.
Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand held a last-minute meeting with the head of the CGT, the biggest union in the transport sector, on Tuesday and was to meet with other unions on Wednesday.
The government has said it will not be budged from plans to overhaul the so-called "special" pension system enjoyed by 1.6 million rail, energy and other workers.
Invoking social equity, Sarkozy has begun moves to lengthen contribution periods for these workers from 37.5 years to 40, closer to other public and private sector employees. Currently some railway staff can retire on a full pension at 50.
Hours before the rail strike began, Sarkozy re-asserted his determination to see the reforms through, arguing that he had a strong electoral mandate to enact the changes.
"I will carry out these reforms right to the end. Nothing will put me off my goal," he told the European Parliament during a visit to Strasbourg.
"The French people approved these reforms. I told them all about it before the elections so that I would be able to do what was necessary afterwards."
Employees at the Paris opera house plan to walk off the job as do workers at the Comedie Francaise state theatre, which cancelled a performance of "Pedro and the Commander" scheduled for Wednesday evening.
Paris hotels say more than 25 percent of their reservations this week have been cancelled because of the strike, while commuters have flocked to car-pooling and other alternative travel arrangements.
Sarkozy convened a meeting of directors of the state SNCF rail company, the RATP and the EDF electricity and GDF gas utilities to "assess the situation and prospects in the coming days," said presidential spokesman David Martinon.
The unions have called for open-ended strikes while the operators are expecting massive disruptions to continue into next week when civil servants, teachers and other public employees stage their protest action.
Currently the state injects some five billion euros a year into the special pensions fund because contributions from workers fall far short of payments.
The last time a government tried to reform the "special" pensions, in 1995, three weeks of strikes and demonstrations forced then president Jacques Chirac to climb down.
This time, polls show strong support for Sarkozy in his showdown with the unions.
Two polls published Tuesday showed Sarkozy's popularity had declined by several percentage points, but a majority of people still held a favourable opinion of him.
A similar transport strike on October 18 enjoyed strong support and union leaders have vowed to stand their ground in the battle with Sarkozy.
Magistrates and court clerks are planning to take to the streets on November 29 while unions at the Meteo France weather service also announced a strike starting on November 20.
Subject: French news