Strike halts trains in France

Posted in Europe | 14-Nov-07 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Subway riders in Paris found their commutes thwarted Wednesday by the strike.

PARIS: A national transport strike crippled parts of France on Wednesday as labor unions and President Nicolas Sarkozy faced off in a bitter confrontation over his plans to curb the early retirement benefits of about 500,000 public sector workers.

Some of the country's biggest train stations were deserted during rush hour after employees of the state-owned railway operator SNCF walked out Tuesday night. Paris transit workers joined the walkout on Wednesday morning, shutting down key commuter lines around the capital and paralyzing parts of the M├ętro and bus network.

In brisk November temperatures, Parisians walked, biked or roller-bladed to work. Traffic in the city center and on the beltway ringing the capital slowed to a crawl. But in a sign that support for the strike may not be as overwhelming as the unions had hoped, some subway lines experienced fewer disruptions than expected.

"Will it last?" asked the front page headline of Le Parisien newspaper on Wednesday, echoing a question heard in bistros and cafes. In 1995, the last time a government tried to reform public sector pensions, unions shut down the country for three weeks and forced the authorities to abandon the measure.

Against that backdrop, the protests have become a test of wills. Sarkozy's pension reform, which affects about 500,000 public sector employees, is the opening salvo in a series of measures aimed more broadly at rolling back France's system of labor protections. Both the president and the unions have staked their legitimacy on victory in the standoff.

Henri Guaino, Sarkozy's aide and speechwriter, said on LCI television Wednesday that if the pension measure failed, "all other reforms will be compromised."

Gas and electricity workers also went on strike Wednesday, threatening targeted blackouts to air their grievances over the retirement reform. Employees of the national opera cancelled Wednesday's performance, while university students in some cities joined the protests by occupying campuses and blockading classes.

Opinion polls suggest Sarkozy has the public on his side. Six in ten voters agree that the retirement age of a small group of public sector employees should not be below the national average.

Some Parisians displayed their support in original ways.

Outside the Saint Lazare station in central Paris, several bikes had small signs with anti-strike slogans clipped to their baskets. "Stop the strike. Today I pedal because of the strike and it works me up." Across town, in the Marais neighborhood, a mother had attached a small banner to her child's stroller urging striking workers to stop being selfish and think about the next generation.

A small free market party under the name of "Liberal Alternative" was planning demonstrations in favor of the reform.

The French are accustomed to sporadic labor protests and many had made elaborate preparations for this strike. Some organized car-sharing, others took the day off or worked from home. Many rented one of the 10,000 rental bikes recently installed around the capital.

But in contrast to many strike-hardened Parisians, tourists had a harder time.

At Montparnasse station in southern Paris, John Musacchio, a 61-year-old retired American from New Jersey was stranded on his way to Lourdes on vacation.

"This strike is a big inconvenience," said Musacchio, who arrived in France two days ago. "It's even worse for tourists because we didn't really know about it. So we couldn't prepare for it."

Ariane Bernard and Pauline Ranger contributed reporting for this article.