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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2007, 20:01 GMT
French strike brings travel chaos
A man in front of an empty automatic gate at the normally busy Gare du Nord in Paris on 14 November 2007
French commuters face the bleak prospect of limited train services
France has suffered travel chaos after transport and energy workers broadened a strike in protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform.

Rail services were severely disrupted and energy production reduced in the open-ended action over cuts affecting some 500,000 public sector workers.

Unions have vowed to extend the strike into Thursday.

On Wednesday evening, Mr Sarkozy urged a speedy end to the action, saying conditions for talks had been met.

"The president of the republic has always considered that there is more to be gained for all parties in negotiation than in conflict," said Mr Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon.

The strikes "must stop as quickly as possible in the interest of passengers", he said.

There are fears the stoppage, which began on Tuesday evening, could last for several days.

The latest disruption comes on the heels of crippling transport strikes on 18 October.

The BBC's Alasdair Sandford in Paris says that with students, teachers, civil servants and even magistrates also threatening strike action in the coming weeks, the fear for the government is that this becomes a general wave of protest against economic hardship.

Contingency plans

'SPECIAL' PENSIONS
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

Predicting a "hellish day for travellers", Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand met Mr Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon and also held talks with unions to seek a resolution.

Nationwide, fewer than a quarter of trains ran normally and only 90 of the country's 700 high-speed TGV trains were operating.

Just one in five subway trains on the Paris metro were in service and only 15% of bus services were running.

Transport managers promised marginal improvements on Thursday but warned of more severe disruption.

HAVE YOUR SAY
How can the French possibly justify this strike? Giving train drivers the mere possibility to work over 55, not the obligation, provokes widespread strikes
Robert Marsh, Lyon

Across France, commuters were forced to find other ways to get to work - driving in earlier than usual, car sharing, cycling or roller blading.

More than 300km (190 miles) of traffic jams, twice the daily average, reportedly clogged roads into Paris.

In other developments:

  • Power output on French electricity grids was down by 8,000 megawatts amid walkouts by around 30% of staff at electricity group EDF and at gas company GDF
  • Wednesday's shows at the Paris opera and Comedie Francaise were cancelled as performers joined the strikes
  • Thirty-five of France's 85 campuses were disrupted by blockades as students protested against a law letting universities accept private donations and charge tuition.

Sarkozy 'no Thatcher'

Xavier Michel, 25, who skated 8km to his advertising job, told the AP news agency: "I support the idea of strikes, but not this strike. It hurts the little guys like us who are basically taken hostage."

STRIKE SPREADS
Commuters cram on to a metro train in Paris
RAIL: Seven of eight unions at the state-owned SNCF rail company began an open-ended strike on 13 November
PARIS METRO/BUS: Five of eight unions joined an open-ended strike on 14 November
ENERGY: Seven unions at state-owned EDF and GDF utilities strike on 14 November
PARIS OPERA HOUSE: Four unions representing staff join strike on 14 November. Open-ended strike by La Comedie Francaise, the state theatre

While polls broadly supported Mr Sarkozy, some commuters criticised him for trying to push through change too quickly.

The last time a 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 Mr Sarkozy insists France can no longer afford to allow some public service employees to retire on a full pension as early as 50 and he has vowed to stay the course.

"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," he said.

Bosses from the CGT and CFTC unions said French workers did not want to work longer for less pension but hoped ministers might offer concessions to end the strike.

Economist Xavier Tambo said he doubted if the French president possessed the iron will of a figure like the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

He told the BBC: "I don't think Nicolas Sarkozy is ready to apply a few years of Margaret Thatcher-like politics in France. What he wants is negotiation in the end."



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
France's Metro system comes to a standstill



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