France was plunged into travel chaos for the second time in a month on Wednesday as striking railway unions staged a show of strength against the economic reforms of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Nationwide fewer than one-quarter of trains were running normally — and only 90 out 700 TGV fast trains — and in Paris several lines of the metro system were at a standstill. Rail links to Paris’s airports were practically non-existent.
Commuters faced the grim choice of fighting their way to work or using up a day of holiday. Those who could joined car-share schemes or cycled to the office, and the capital’s new self-service bicycle system, Velib, was much in demand.
”If there’s no train, I’ll have to hitch-hike. What really worries me is getting home this evening. Let’s just hope this doesn’t last,” said Madeleine, a waitress heading to central Paris from the suburb of Romainville.
The trouble was set to extend to Thursday after two large unions rolled the strike over into a second day.
Transport managers said the situation was slightly better than during the last stoppage on October 18, with a small drop in the number of strikers. The inaugural service by Eurostar to London’s new St Pancras terminal was unaffected.
There were also the first signs of a possible breakthrough in the conflict, as a key union agreed to sector-by-sector talks on reform of the so-called ”special” pensions systems enjoyed by 1,6-million rail, energy and other workers.
Invoking social equity, Sarkozy has begun moves to lengthen contribution periods for these workers from 37,5 years to 40, closer to other public and private-sector employees. Today some railway staff can retire on a full pension at 50.
Hours before the rail strike began, Sarkozy reasserted his determination to see the reforms through, arguing that he had a strong electoral mandate to enact the changes.
”I will carry out these reforms right to the end. Nothing will put me off my goal,” he told the European Parliament during a visit to Strasbourg. ”The French people approved these reforms. I told them all about it before the elections so that I would be able to do what was necessary afterwards.”
Despite the chaos, signs of a possible compromise emerged as the biggest rail union — the General Labour Confederation (CGT) — agreed to new talks and Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand held a series of meetings with union leaders.
End to strike?
Several newspapers predicted that the strike could end quicker than expected, arguing that it was not in the unions’ interests to push too hard.
”One only has to listen to the heads of the different enterprises to understand that there is genuine scope for negotiation. So all this could end up not in a pointless arms-wrestling match but a genuine improvement in social relations,” said the left-wing Liberation.
While the government has said it will stand firm on the principle of lengthening contribution periods, it could help the SNCF and other employers provide salary incentives to affected workers.
The last time a government tried to reform the ”special” pensions, in 1995, three weeks of strikes and demonstrations forced then-president Jacques Chirac to climb down.
This time, polls show strong support for Sarkozy in his showdown with the unions.
Two polls published on Tuesday showed Sarkozy’s popularity had declined by several percentage points, but a majority of people still held a favourable opinion of him. According to another survey, 84% of the public believe Sarkozy will stand firm.
SNCF unions gave notice of an open-ended strike, which meant the disruption could extend for several days. Some organisers hope that the stoppages will last to November 20, when a separate strike by civil servants against state-sector job cuts is planned.
The strike comes against a background of heightened social tension in the country, with students protesting against a university reform law and magistrates up in arms against plans to reorganise the local court system.
Singers at the Paris opera and actors at the Comedie Francaise, who also enjoy ”special” pensions, forced the cancellation of performances on Wednesday. — Sapa-AFP