Strikes Hit France as Unions Fight Sarkozy Reforms

France faces travel chaos on Wednesday as transport unions broaden a nationwide strike against pension changes that President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged as part of an ambitious plan to reform the economy.

France Train.jpg

Workers at national rail operator SNCF stopped work at 8.00 p.m. on Tuesday and will be joined by Paris transport workers and staff of power and gas utilities EdF and GdF on Wednesday.

Trains have been halted across France and metro, bus and tram services in Paris will be crippled by the stoppage, called to protest against government plans to scrap special pension rules that benefit some public sector workers.

The open-ended strike, potentially the most serious in over a decade, has posed the biggest challenge to Sarkozy since he came to power six months ago pledging a deep-seated reform of the French economy.

There were signs late on Tuesday that neither side wanted the dispute to go on indefinitely, and Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand will hold meetings with unions on Wednesday after the powerful CGT union softened a key demand.

"This strike has to end as quickly as possible," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told TF1 television after the strike began late on Tuesday.

He welcomed an offer from CGT head Bernard Thibault to take part in separate talks in each sector with employers and government representatives. Previously the union had demanded centralized talks between the three sides.

Opinion polls suggest that a majority of French people support the government's drive to reform the so-called "special pension regimes" which Sarkozy says are outdated, unfair and unaffordable.

But other disputes with students and public servants are brewing, public discontent with the cost of living and rising petrol and housing prices is mounting, and the transport strike has the potential to widen if it drags on.

The special regimes were introduced after World War Two for workers in especially arduous jobs and allow some workers to retire after paying pension contributions for 37.5 years rather than the 40 years demanded of other workers.

The government says it will have to pump 5 billion euros (US$7.3 billion) into the special pension funds this year alone to balance the accounts and says an increase in contribution periods to 40 years for all workers is non-negotiable.

Transport workers say working conditions may not be as hard as when the system was devised more than half a century ago, but that they still suffer low pay and awkward working hours that justify their special status.