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Negotiations in France Strikes Begin

Long-awaited negotiations with striking transit workers began Wednesday, the eighth full day of a walkout that has paralyzed train traffic throughout France.

Already disrupted train travel was made worse by a series of attacks on high-speed lines that the national rail company described as "coordinated sabotage."

Train drivers, Paris Metro employees and certain other public sector workers have been staying off the job to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to trim their retirement benefits.

Sarkozy appears to have the upper hand in the test of strength with powerful transport unions -- opinion polls say the public strongly supports the president and strikers have been trickling back to work on subway and long-distance trains.

Talks between labor unions and Paris' public transit authority kicked off Wednesday with a government representative present.

Negotiations with the national SNCF railway authority were slated for later in the day.

The talks are expected to last for one month.

The government hopes the opening of the negotiations will prompt a full return to work.

Despite some slight improvements in service, severe traffic disruptions continued Wednesday to make the travel an unpleasant test of patience for commuters worn down by more than a week of strikes.

Just over half of the 700 normally scheduled fast trains were running and only one out of four Paris Metros.

The SNCF said a "coordinated sabotage campaign" overnight Tuesday had damaged high speed train installations and would cause delays on Wednesday.

Bernard Thibault, the boss of the powerful CGT union, condemned the vandalism as an "unacceptable act" and said it was aimed at "discrediting the strike movement."

The head of France's main employers' association described the strike as "a real catastrophe for our economy."

"The economic cost is incalculable, probably gigantic," Laurence Parisot told RTL radio.