French Transit Strike Persists Although Many Are Back on the Job

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 16, 2007

PARIS, Nov. 15 -- Union leaders ordered that France's transit strike continue Friday for a third day, even though large numbers of workers returned to their jobs Thursday and government and union officials debated an end to the work stoppage that has turned much of the country into a commuter nightmare.

Paris streets were gridlocked during morning and evening rush hours and the sold-out opening performance of the Christmas classic "The Nutcracker" at the Paris Opera was canceled. City commuter buses functioned as school buses to get thousands of youngsters to school on the second day of a strike protesting government proposals to reduce special retirement benefits for about 500,000 employees.

"This strike must stop," Prime Minister Fran┬┐ois Fillon told the French Senate on Thursday. "It's a strike that penalizes users and that will not result in social progress."

In neighboring Germany, rail workers continued for a second day one of the largest transport strikes in the country's history, shutting down freight and passenger train lines over demands for higher wages.

In France, transit workers, opera technicians, electric and gas company employees have gone on strike to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to reduce special pension benefits that allow them to retire after 37 1/2 years instead of the usual 40 years. University students have been striking over changes in government education policies.

With civil servants and workers in other sectors threatening to strike over their own particular issues next week, the stoppages pose a major threat to Sarkozy's efforts to reduce France's bureaucracy, cut back on costly social programs and make France's workforce more competitive in global markets.

"I'm not a Sarkozy fan, but I'd like for him to reform our country," said Alice Foret, 54, who was late for her job at a Paris jewelry shop because of striking transit workers. "The pension system has to be more egalitarian. I'll retire when I'm 63. Why can train drivers retire when they're 55? It's not fair."

Late Wednesday, Sarkozy offered to modify some of his objectives if striking unions agreed to enter negotiations with the government. Response from the unions on Thursday was mixed: Some expressed a willingness to negotiate, while others voted to continue open-ended strikes.

"You cannot get out of such an important movement just like this, on the pretext of a little letter inviting us to talks," railway union head Alain Pottier told reporters as he entered a meeting with other union leaders.

Transit unions said fewer than half their workers remained on strike Thursday, compared with the nearly two-thirds of employees who walked off the job Wednesday, the first day of the strike. But that did little to ease the frustrations of millions of commuters, travelers, shoppers and schoolchildren seeking alternate ways to reach their destinations.

Classes at about 30 universities across the country were disrupted by students striking to protest changes the government has approved giving individual universities greater autonomy from the national educational system.

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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