France's 'Black Thursday' not as bad as feared
Strikes delayed French commuter traffic but, initially at least, the promised "Black Thursday" protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's government was less dramatic than expected.
Inside the city, around three-quarters of Metro trains were running on the underground network, along with 85 percent of buses and all trams and airport shuttle services, management told AFP.
Arriving in Paris, most commuters were unperturbed by the disruption and many expressed support for the strikers.
"I'm tired and frozen after waiting half-an-hour on the platform," said 34-year-old secretary Sandrine Dermont as she got in to Saint Lazare station.
"But I'm prepared to accept that when it's a movement to defend our spending power and jobs. I'll join the street protests during my lunch break.
There was, as expected, more disruption on the RER commuter rail network bringing workers into the city. One branch line was fully closed and on others only one train in four or one in five was in service.
Nevertheless, this did not translate into more chaos on the roads.
Thousands of suburban commuters appeared to have either stayed at home, whether because they were on strike or just taking advantage of France's generous holiday entitlements.
There was a similar story in provincial cities. In Marseille the Metro was closed, but in Lille eight buses in 10 were working and in Bordeaux and Lyon trams and subways were operating at around half capacity.
The regional road transport agency said that at 8.00 am (0700 GMT) there was a total of 136 kilometres (85 miles) of tailbacks on roads into Paris, compared to the 150 kilometres seen during a normal rush hour.
National and regional train services were also disrupted, although again not as badly as had been expected. Rail firm SNCF predicted that 60 percent of highspeed TGV services would run, and 40 percent of regional trains.
Eurostar services to London and the Thalys to Belgium and the Netherlands and the Alleo to Germany were not expected to suffer delays, but the Lyria line to Switzerland was to run at between a third and a half capacity.
Aside from calling for a nationwide day of strike, France's unions have also called for large-scale street demonstrations for Thursday afternoon, to protest Sarkozy's response to the world economic crisis.
Faced with business failures and mounting unemployment, workers fear they will bear the brunt of a collapse they blame on greedy bankers and lax state regulation of market capitalism.
"We need to shout, because there is a major injustice in this crisis," said Francois Chereque, leader of the CFDT union, who accused Sarkozy of pushing through a pro-business reform agenda.
Sarkozy came to power in May 2007 promising to raise living standards and kickstart the economy but has been forced to set aside 360 billion euros (477 billion dollars) of state money to underwrite struggling banks.
The president has also announced a 26-billion-euro stimulus package for industry, but has pledged to press ahead with unpopular reforms to trim the public sector workforce and liberalise the labour market.
"I understand your difficulties," Sarkozy said earlier this week. "But I do not want to halt the drive toward reform."
France narrowly averted recession last year, but experts predict the economy will contract in 2009 for the first time since 1993.
The eurozone's second largest economy also crossed the symbolic threshold of two million jobless late last year and French unemployment is expected to continue rising.