French state rail operator warns of strike chaos

17th October 2007, Comments 0 comments

17 October 2007, PARIS (AFP) - French commuters face chaos Thursday with a 24-hour strike expected to cripple the national network, shut down the Paris opera and possibly even affect the rugby World Cup final, officials said.

17 October 2007

PARIS (AFP) - French commuters face chaos Thursday with a 24-hour strike expected to cripple the national network, shut down the Paris opera and possibly even affect the rugby World Cup final, officials said.

State rail operator SNCF said the Eurostar to London will operate almost as normal but only 46 out of 700 domestic fast-trains will be running and nearly all regional train links will be cancelled.

Widespread disruption is also expected on the Paris metro, bus and suburban commuter rail networks as the city prepares to host rugby union's showcase World Cup final between South Africa and England on Saturday.

Singers and actors at the Paris opera and the Comedie Francaise announced they would refuse to perform in productions of "La Traviata" and "Le Malade Imaginaire," on what unionists have dubbed "Black Thursday."

About 60 protest marches are scheduled to take place across the country, including Paris from the early afternoon.

The strike is due to end Thursday evening but some rail unions have said they will try to roll it over into Friday and beyond -- stoking fears of disruption around the rugby final at the Stade de France.

An open-ended strike notice has been served by the CGT union in the Paris-north region which serves the Stade de France.

The civil aviation authority also warned that there could be limited disruption to Paris flights early Thursday, mainly because of the difficulties faced by staff in getting to work.

The strike, which officially starts Wednesday evening, is against government plans to reform so-called "special" pension systems enjoyed by some 1.6 million rail, energy and other employees.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to increase the length of contribution periods for these workers from 37.5 to 40 years, in line with other public and private sector staff.

The strike is seen as a key test for the president. The last time a government tried to reform the systems was in 1995 when prime minister Alain Juppe was forced into a humiliating climbdown by weeks of strikes and demonstrations.

There was contradictory evidence on the state of public opinion towards the strikers.

According to an IFOP poll, 61 percent believe the strike to be "not justified". However a CSA survey for the communist daily L'Humanite found 54 percent in favour.

Set up before the post-war introduction of a general pensions scheme, the "special" systems are enjoyed by workers at SNCF, metro operator RATP, utility suppliers EDF and GDF as well as miners, opera singers, parliamentarians, lawyers' clerks, fishermen and others.

Some 500,000 workers are currently paying into the systems, and some 1.1 million are drawing pensions, which has led to an annual shortfall of some five billion euros (seven billion dollars) borne by the tax-payer.

The centre-right French government has been gradually extending contribution periods for all workers to safeguard the pensions system against the pressures of demographic change.

Some teachers, electricity and gas workers and civil servants will also stop working Thursday.

AFP

Subject: French news

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