French strikes continue as unions debate

Posted in Europe | 15-Nov-07 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Stranded commuters wait for a subway train in Paris on Thursday.

PARIS: French labor unions were debating Thursday whether to prolong a national transport strike that crippled rail services and local transit networks for a second day.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose plans to curb retirement privileges for about 500,000 public-sector workers sparked the walkout, on Wednesday offered a fresh round of negotiations to union chiefs and his spokesman expressed hope that the strike would end "as quickly as possible."

His labor minister, Xavier Bertrand, has made clear that the centerpiece of the reform — bringing the retirement age of all public sector workers in line with the rest of the population — was non-negotiable. But in a letter addressed to unions on Wednesday night he proposed a one month negotiation period to discuss ways of making the changes acceptable to each of the public companies that still offer the early retirement benefits in question, notably the state-controlled transport companies and utilities.

As workers held meetings across the country to prepare their response, commuters suffered another day of severe disruptions.

The national rail authority SNCF said that only 150 high-speed TGV trains were scheduled to run on Thursday, out of the normal 700. In Paris, key commuter lines remained shut and only one bus in three was operating. Service differed across the subway network, with some lines running one in five trains and others operating close to normal with one in two.

But if public transport conditions had improved somewhat from a day earlier, road traffic appeared to be worse. In and around Paris, 300 kilometers of traffic jams were reported from 5 a.m. onward.

Parisians walked, biked or roller-bladed to work. The capital's 10,000 rental bikes remained in hot demand, forcing many hopeful cyclists to change plans at empty docking stations.

The protests have become a test of wills. Sarkozy's pension plan 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.

In 1995, the last time a government tried to change the so-called special pension regimes, unions managed to shut down the country for three weeks and forced the authorities to abandon the attempt.

Henri Guaino, Sarkozy's aide and speechwriter, said earlier this week that if the pension measure failed, "all other reforms will be compromised."

But for the moment, public opinion was firmly behind Sarkozy's plans. Seven in 10 voters agreed that the retirement age of the public sector employees in question should not be below the national average, according to a survey published in Le Figaro on Wednesday.