French strike presses on, unions to vote on suspension
22 November 2007, PARIS - France's crippling rail strike stretched into a ninth day Thursday with unions meeting to decide their next move after talks began on resolving a high-stakes stand-off over pension reform.
22 November 2007
PARIS - France's crippling rail strike stretched into a ninth day Thursday with unions meeting to decide their next move after talks began on resolving a high-stakes stand-off over pension reform.
Union leaders signalled some progress after Wednesday's initial negotiations, which were clouded by arson attacks on France's high-speed TGV network.
With an almost daily drop-off in the number of workers taking part in the strike, state-owned rail operator SNCF predicted a "significant increase" in traffic on Thursday.
Two out of three TGV services should be operating, it said, and one train in three or four on the Paris metro.
Paris commuters have been hard hit by the stoppage, which for many has meant journeys of two or three hours to and from work.
After Wednesday's talks, the General Labour Confederation (CGT) rail union leader Didier Le Reste said "some opening points have been acknowledged".
CGT members will now hold local meetings around the country to vote on whether to suspend or pursue the strike action while negotiations continue.
Some local committees have already voted to suspend the stoppage, and two smaller SNCF unions called for an end to the strike.
SNCF officials said there had been a "coordinated campaign of sabotage" in the early hours of Wednesday, with signalling cables set on fire in several places on TGV lines.
Trains were forced to switch onto regular tracks, causing further delays to an already heavily disrupted timetable.
Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau condemned the action as "grave and reprehensible acts of violence".
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has vowed no u-turn on the pension reforms at the centre of the industrial action, called for the culprits to be punished with "utmost severity".
Union leaders also denounced the attacks, with Le Reste calling them "unspeakable acts carried out by cowards."
The proportion of strikers has been in steady decline since the start of the action on November 13, and on Wednesday stood at 23 percent at SNCF and just 16 percent at metro operator RATP.
According to government figures, the strike is costing France some 400 million euros (590 million dollars) a day.
Ministers have said they will not yield on the core of the reform which is to increase contribution periods for 500,000 beneficiaries of "special" pensions systems so that they are in line with the rest of the population. Currently they retire two and a half years earlier.
But the government has suggested salary rises and top-up pension schemes could sweeten the pill, and SNCF management said a 90-million-euro a year financial package is available if the strikers return to work.
"For all those French people who have had enough of this nightmare, it is high time that the strikes end, and that work resume... now that negotiations are under way," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told the National Assembly.
"In the last few days the strike has fundamentally changed in nature. It is no longer the rank-and-file refusing to work, but the hardliners who from the start have refused to countenance negotiation," said the pro-government daily Le Figaro.
According to a poll in the same newspaper, Sarkozy is winning the battle of public opinion, with 68 percent believing the strike is "not justified" and 69 percent hoping that the government "does not give way to the unions' claims."
Subject: French news