France hit by transport chaos as unions confront Sarkozy
15 November 2007, PARIS - French commuters face a second day of traffic chaos Thursday after rail unions voted to continue a nation-wide transport strike, and the government sought to revive fraught negotiations.
15 November 2007
PARIS - French commuters face a second day of traffic chaos Thursday after rail unions voted to continue a nation-wide transport strike, and the government sought to revive fraught negotiations.
Workers in the national rail network and the Paris metro shut down the system Wednesday in protest at the economic reform plans of President Nicolas Sarkozy, the second such strike in a month.
Fewer than a quarter of trains ran normally across France and only 90 of 700 TGV fast trains.
In Paris several lines of the metro system were at a standstill and rail links to Paris's airports were practically non-existent.
The six rail and four metro unions announced late Wednesday that the action would continue at least another 24 hours.
"So long as there are no new elements, we are for continuing the dispute," said Bernard Thibault, leader of the CGT union.
But the leader of the CFDT union, Francois Cherequem, said guarantees offered by Labour Minister Francois Bertrand meant it might be possible to suspend the strike.
His union was one of those that voted to continue the stoppages into Thursday.
Bertrand appeared to take a step towards the unions late Wednesday in a letter proposing another month of talks with rail management, but with government representatives involved as requested by the CGT.
Sarkozy had asked Bertrand to send out the letter after his minister held a series of talks Tuesday and Wednesday to try to end the dispute.
"The president has always considered that there was more to gain for all parties in negotiation than in conflict," said David Martinon, Sarkozy's spokesman.
The strike should stop "as soon as possible for the sake of the passengers," he added.
Commuters either fought their way to work Wednesday or took the day off to escape the jams. Those who could joined car-share schemes or cycled to the office.
The capital's new self-service bicycle system Velib was much in demand.
The inaugural service by Eurostar to London's new St. Pancras terminal was unaffected.
Singers at the Paris opera and actors at the Comedie Francaise, who also enjoy "special" pensions, forced the cancellation of performances.
Transport managers said there would be some improvement Thursday on the national rail and Paris commuter systems but the country was still expected to be at a standstill.
The strike came against a background of heightened social tension in the country, with students protesting against a university reform law and magistrates up in arms against plans to reorganise the court system.
Wednesday's stoppage was not quite as well-observed by the strikers as the first action on October 18.
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. Today some railway staff can retire on a full pension at 50.
Speaking in the National Assembly, Sarkozy's close ally Prime Minister Francois Fillon called on unions to "call off a strike which serves no purpose, which will never achieve anything for anyone and which is inconveniencing thousands of French people."
Several newspapers including left-wing daily Liberation predicted that the strike could end quicker than expected, arguing that it was not in the unions' interests to push too hard.
While the government has said it will stand firm on the principle of lengthening contribution periods, it could help the SNCF and other employers provide salary incentives to affected workers.
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.
But the polls continue to show strong support for Sarkozy in his showdown with the unions.
SNCF unions gave notice of an open-ended strike, which meant the disruption could extend for several days. Some organisers hope it will last to November 20, when a separate strike by civil servants against state sector job cuts is planned.
Subject: French news