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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 16:07 GMT
French unions to continue strike
Striking railway workers block freight trains in Bayonne, south west France, 16 November
Some drivers prevented trains and buses leaving the depots
Transport workers in France have voted to continue a national strike over the weekend, protesting against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reforms.

Most of France's rail network remained disrupted for a third day on Friday.

But there are signs that support for the strike is waning, with increasing numbers of employees returning to work.

Unions have said they are still waiting for an agreement on the conditions under which talks between government, unions and employers can take place.

Labour minister Xavier Bertrand has said talks can begin only when union leaders call off the strike.

The unions want to continue the walkout during any negotiations.

Friday saw a slight increase in the number of trains and metros running but millions of people still faced long delays and struggled to get to and from work, with many resorting to going on foot, cycling or roller-blading along traffic-choked roads.

Only 200 of the usual 700 TGV high-speed trains were running.

Two metro lines in Paris were closed completely, and about one in three buses was running.

Fewer than one third of train drivers took part in the strike on Friday, down from 61.5% in the first full day of walkouts on Wednesday, the state-run SNCF train company said.

Millions of commuters in Germany are also experiencing big delays on the third day of a national strike by train drivers over a pay dispute.

Deutsche Bahn says it will not make a new pay offer, and drivers' unions have raised the prospect of open-ended strikes.

'Uncontrolled elements'

The French government says it is ready to begin new negotiations with unions but only when the strike is called off.

"We need a call on the part of the unions in the companies concerned for work to resume so that immediately - I repeat: immediately - tripartite talks can open, talks demanded by those same trade unions," Mr Bertrand told French RTL radio on Friday.

Benefits 1.6m workers, including 1.1m retirees
Applies in 16 sectors, of which rail and utilities employees make up 360,000 people
Account for 6% of total state pension payments
Shortfall costs state 5bn euros (3.5bn; $6.9bn) a year
Some workers can retire on full pensions aged 50
Awarded to Paris Opera House workers in 1698 by Louis XIV

A drop in the number of strikers showed that "there are now more workers who want to go back to work" than those who want to continue the strike, he said.

"All the conditions are in place to allow us to end this strike as soon as possible," Mr Bertrand added.

Early on Friday some strikers prevented trains from leaving Argenteuil train depot, west of Paris, by placing flares and firecrackers on the tracks.

"It's scandalous and absolutely unacceptable," said Guillaume Pepy, executive director of SNCF.

"A number of uncontrolled strikers or elements from outside the company have caused disorder by putting hand flares, firecrackers and detonators that are security devices on the tracks to prevent trains from running."

Sud Rail union confirmed the incident, saying the strikers were targeting a smaller union of independent train drivers who are not taking part in the strike.

"There will be more of these actions, and not only at Argenteuil," warned Dominique Malvaud from Sud Rail.

Public sector perks

The government is facing industrial conflict on several fronts. Students are stepping up protests over university reforms and next week, teachers and civil servants are due to strike over job cuts.

SNCF employees close a regional train's doors at Gare Saint-Lazare station, Paris, 16/11
Commuters have faced difficult journeys to work

Some French commuters sided with Mr Sarkozy, saying the reforms were needed.

"I work in the private sector here in France, and do not actually benefit from all the wonderful perks that come with a public sector job - 35-hour working weeks, five weeks' paid vacation, early retirement," Kim Marohn told the BBC news website.

But Paris teacher Colette Catrina said she did support the unions.

"The majority of my work colleagues supported the movement because it is at the core of their main worries about pension reforms. They all will be on strike themselves on 24 November to ask for pay rises and protest against reforms which favour wealthy and well-off people," she said.

The strike began on Tuesday night and follows a previous walkout on 18 October.

The last time a French government tried to overhaul "special" pensions was in 1995 and it sparked three weeks of strikes that forced then-President Jacques Chirac to climb down.

But the polls have so far broadly supported Mr Sarkozy, who says France can no longer afford to let some public service employees retire on a full pension as early as 50.

Transport workers vote to continue strike


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