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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Commuter misery in Paris
By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

A man looks at a board at Saint-Lazare station in Paris announcing the cancellation of trains for the 24-hour strike
The strike reduced rail services to just a few trains
To any poor sports fan who's descending on Paris on Thursday hoping to have a little holiday ahead of the Rugby World Cup Final: Bonne Chance!

There is almost no bus or metro service and the rail networks say just one in 10 trains are running.

As for taxis, if you did not order one last Christmas, then forget it - and even if you did, it is touch and go whether it will turn up.

Across the country the streets are jammed with traffic, and in Paris, every single "Velib" bike is being furiously pedalled by a breathless commuter, not necessarily used to taking exercise. The new communal cycle scheme launched this summer has come into its own.

Battle of wills

More than 60% of French people are against this strike.

One man was visibly annoyed by the inconvenience of the skeleton public transport service.

There is a feeling of solidarity and a feeling that the droits acquis, what we have already achieved, should be defended
Sylvie Goulard, political analyst

"We haven't got any trains, I can't go to work, I can't take a taxi because there are no taxis. I am very disappointed that they can't assure a minimum of service," he said.

"I am waiting for [President] Nicolas Sarkozy to do something. It is very difficult to work in these conditions."

This strike is essentially about a battle of wills.

On the one hand, 500,000 public transport and energy workers are determined to keep their historic and generous pension privileges; and on the other, there is a determined government, bent on reform.

The unions are defending what they see as their long-standing right - the ability to retire after working just 37.5 years against 40 years for other public and private sector workers.

The pension perks are incredibly generous and date back to the end of World War II. At the time, workers in the energy and transport sections were greatly needed for the reconstruction effort and were encouraged to work with the offer of good benefits.

Pressure for talks

President Sarkozy's government insists those days are long gone and with huge debts and a very low level of growth, there is simply not enough money in the pot to fund them.

A man hitchhikes while another one rides his bicycle in Paris
In Paris, commuters have turned en masse to the new Velib bikes

Some 82% of French people say they believe the special pension schemes should be scrapped but Paul Fourrier of the CGT union says it is all about warning Mr Sarkozy they will not be bullied.

"The reason for the strike is to send a message to the president and the prime minister. Especially about the basics of the reforms," he says.

"The president and the prime minister decided on 95% of the reforms and say we have 5% to negotiate. We say it's not possible to do it like that - we have to negotiate more and to see the reform differently than now," Mr Fourrier adds.

'Rally habit'

Many public sector workers, including teachers and civil servants who would not be affected by the planned changes, are lending their support to the strike. Big demonstrations in support of the strike took place in towns and cities across France on Thursday.

Sylvie Goulard, a political analyst says the French find it hard to see their cherished social model attacked.

"There is a feeling of solidarity and a feeling that the droits acquis, what we have already achieved, should be defended... one of the main heritages we have in Europe is a very high level of social protection," she says.

"On the other hand, there is also a political aspect: the opponents of Nicolas Sarkozy want to make some noise. And the last point is that in France we lack places where we can discuss in a civil way, or in a very open and quiet way, to discuss social issues. So there is a kind of habit in this country to go onto the streets as soon as there is a problem," Ms Goulard says.

New law

The last time a government tried to change the special pension regime was in 1995, when France was brought to its knees by three weeks of strikes and street protests.

The prime minister was forced to back down but now President Sarkozy insists he will not give in.

In January, a new law comes into force which will ensure a there is a minimum service during future transport strikes - for many of the frustrated commuters stuck in deserted train stations and empty bus stops.

That time cannot come soon enough.

A union spokesman explains why workers are striking

France hit by transport strike
18 Oct 07 |  Europe
France hit by mass job protests
29 Mar 06 |  Europe
Strike cripples French railways
21 Nov 05 |  Europe

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