European strikes cause travel chaos

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Millions of European commuters struggled to work Tuesday as workers in France and Britain staged strikes over pension reform and planned job cuts.

In France, unions called for a day of mass strike action shutting down trains, planes, buses, subways, post offices and schools in protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pensions reform bill.

Unions called the showdown to derail the government's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, the centrepiece of Sarkozy's political agenda two years before he seeks re-election.

They predicted the turn-out for mass demonstrations would match or more likely exceed that of a similar protest on June 24, when between 800,000 and two million marched in towns and cities across the country.

Bernard Thibault, head of the big CGT union, warned on Europe 1 radio: "If we don't get a hearing there will be further steps to this mobilisation, and nothing has been ruled out."

Ministers have insisted pension reform is necessary and there will be no retreat on raising the minimum retirement age to 62.

The government argues this could save 70 billion euros (90 billion dollars) by 2030 at a time when France's public deficit -- at around eight percent of GDP -- is well above the eurozone target of three percent.

"What's at stake here is the future of the entire retirement system in our country," said Jean-Francois Cope, the leader of Sarkozy's majority UMP in the National Assembly, where lawmakers were to debate the legislation later in the day.

Meanwhile, the DGAC aviation authority warned that up to a quarter of flights into and out of Paris airports could be cancelled or delayed.

Just two out of five TGV high-speed trains were running, with reduced service on many other lines, state railway operator SNCF said.

In Britain, transit was severely disrupted on the London Underground train network, with tourists and commuters forced to bear the brunt of a wave of discontent over the coalition government's austerity measures.

Workers on the Underground closed much of the city's subway system over the planned axing of 800 out of 19,000 jobs on the train network.

Travellers spoke of some journeys taking twice as long as usual, clogged pavements and large queues for bus and ferry services down the River Thames, where extra services were being laid on.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, criticised the industrial action -- which will be followed by further strikes in October and November -- as a "trumped-up and politically motivated" attack on the coalition government.

© 2010 AFP

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