Rail commuters face sixth day of transport mayhem
19 November 2007, PARIS - French commuters face a sixth day of hardship after rail unions Sunday agreed to press on with a strike over pension reform for 24 more hours, but talks were due later in the week to resolve the impasse.
19 November 2007
PARIS - French commuters face a sixth day of hardship after rail unions Sunday agreed to press on with a strike over pension reform for 24 more hours, but talks were due later in the week to resolve the impasse.
Six of the seven unions who launched the protest late last Tuesday agreed to issue the extension call, ignoring pleas from the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy for an early resumption of work.
The decision raised the prospect of the strike continuing into Tuesday, when a separate protest by state employees including teachers and hospital workers is planned.
However, the unions also said they will attend round-table negotiations with a government representative and the management of the state-owned SNCF rail company planned for Wednesday afternoon.
The government has said it will not take part in talks unless the strike is called off first, and it was not clear if the unions intend to wind down their protest in time for Wednesday's negotiations.
Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand underscored the state's stand late Sunday, saying the resumption of normal rail traffic "would translate as (an act of) good faith."
"There are things which are moving, others which are getting unblocked but not fast enough for my liking," he said.
Unions are striking over government plans to reform so-called "special" pensions systems enjoyed by some 500,000 workers mainly in the rail and energy sectors.
Sarkozy pledged in his May election manifesto to end the anomaly under which these workers can retire two and a half years earlier than the rest of the population. Polls show that most French support the reform.
The stoppage has caused widespread havoc -- with massive traffic jams every morning around Paris -- but the number of strikers has been steadily decreasing, giving rise to hopes that a negotiated end could be in sight.
Several thousand people joined a anti-strike demonstration in central Paris on Sunday to demand an end to the strikes.
"The strikers are privileged people compared to the rest of the population. ... They have been holding back the country for the last 30 years," one demonstrator told France-Info radio.
SNCF said that traffic will remain disrupted on Monday, though with a noticeable improvement on last week. Some 300 TGV fast trains will run. The RATP Paris metro operator said only one in five trains will be in service and 40 percent of buses.
SNCF head Anne-Marie Idrac was cautiously optimistic on Sunday, saying "one sees things moving and signs of good faith appearing."
The government has said it will not yield on the central points of the reform, but it has suggested inducements such as pay rises.
Sarkozy meanwhile has lost five confidence points with the French public, according to a poll conducted during the first two days of the strike, CSA pollsters said Sunday.
Sarkozy's five-point fall, to 51 percent, happened within a month, according to the poll conducted for i-Tele/Le Parisien-Aujourd'hui conducted among 959 people nationwide on Wednesday and Thursday.
Business leaders warned the strike is beginning to have a serious effect on companies and called on unions to take up the offer of negotiations.
"Private sector employees have made major sacrifices over their pensions. Justice demands that people in a privileged position in regard to pensions at the very least agree to align themsleves with the rest of the public sector," said the Confederation of Small and Medium Businesses (CGPME).
Apart from the rail workers and state employees, the government faces student unrest while magistrates and lawyers are protesting against a reorganisation of the justice system.
Subject: French news