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Last Updated: Monday, 19 November 2007, 22:56 GMT
Strike fever spreading in France
By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Paris

As happens from time to time in France, militancy is in the air again.

Passengers crowd the platform at the Gare de L'Est Metro station in Paris
Only one Metro line was running in the French capital

The resolve of the railway workers - on strike for almost a week now - seems to have encouraged others to stick up for their rights too.

Lessons at a lycee in Lille were suspended after students blocked access to the secondary school in protest at university reforms.

In Vannes several dozen lawyers angry at an overhaul of the court system had to be forcibly moved by police from a courtroom they had occupied.

And a publishing union announced that Tuesday's newspapers would not appear in the stands because of a dispute over distribution.

The state railway company, SNCF, condemned several new "acts of ill-will" by staff on strike in several stations.

Ballast had been dumped on points, signals interfered with and keys stolen to prevent trains from departing.

In one incident, several carriages disappeared from their depots overnight and were found blocking a track nearby.

Familiar pattern

The rail dispute itself has begun to follow something of a familiar pattern.

No sooner do the government, the railway companies and union leaders announce that talks are on the horizon than grassroots members immediately vote in waves for the strike to continue the following day.

At local meetings around the country on Monday, the results were overwhelmingly in favour - 181 out of 187 workers in Marseille vowed to stay out, as did 97 out of 102 at Bordeaux.

In Strasbourg only five voted against the strike, from 250 workers present.

Striking French rail workers block a road
Rail workers are still voting in large numbers for strikes

At the same time, the proportion of rail staff actually on strike has continued to fall steadily, according to the rail companies.

On Monday only 26% of the national rail workforce was said to be still out, along with only 18% of staff on the Paris metro. Yet among train drivers, the figures have reflected the opposite, which may explain why many services have barely improved since day one.

So, while a sea of Parisian commuters queued for half an hour to reach the platform of the only metro line that was running properly, some were asking why talks had to wait until Wednesday.

Six unions have agreed to sit at a "tripartite round table" with government and railway officials, who will be there as long as rather more trains are running than have been until now.

Walking the tightrope

France's Labour Minister, Xavier Bertrand - who has been tipped as a possible future prime minister - has refused to bend on the principle that the "special regimes" enjoyed by rail and power workers must be brought into line with other pensions in the public sector.

But a compensation package is said to have been drawn up as a sweetener, amounting to perhaps 90 million euros a year according to Le Monde newspaper.

The plethora of unions involved - with the grassroots and rail sections often at odds with the national leadership - has confused the picture.

In the forefront, the CGT leader Bernard Thibault has been walking something of a tightrope, offering olive branches to the government while trying not to alienate his more militant members.

Xavier Bertrand
Xavier Bertrand is refusing to compromise with rail workers

All sides know that many striking rail workers have had their eyes fixed on what has been called "Black Tuesday", when many of those who have been struggling to get to work over the past week will themselves be going on strike.

Hundreds of thousands - possibly millions - of teachers, civil servants, health workers, students, banking staff, air traffic controllers, customs officials, weather forecasters, and others - will stop work for 24 hours for a variety of reasons: from pay to public sector reform.

While some unions have wanted to keep the disputes separate, others have been pushing for a "junction" of the two protest movements under a common theme of the high cost of living.

The high stakes have led to a strange phenomenon: a largely silent president.

The usually omnipresent Nicolas Sarkozy has let his ministers do the talking for the past week.

He is expected to intervene before too long, however, with some major announcements on boosting wages, one of his main election themes.

The president may feel he needs to grab the reins publicly again: at least two opinion polls in recent days suggested that his rating had dropped five points in a month.

In the words of one newspaper, the honeymoon period is over.


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