French militants force second day of strikes

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The Independent Online

A strike by French transport and power workers will rumble into a second day today, despite signs that President Nicolas Sarkozy and some union leaders are anxious to negotiate a settlement. The prospect of a prolonged and bitter confrontation between unions and the government over pension reform appeared to recede yesterday as ministers and one of the most powerful trades union federations, the Confédération Gé*érale du Travail (CGT), abandoned their entrenched positions to permit new industry-by-industry talks on special pension rights.

The more militant union leaders, including the head of the railway section of the CGT, pushed successfully for the strike to be extended into a second day. However, the government and most unions appear to want to prevent the dispute from turning into a symbolic battle over M. Sarkozy's wider reform programme.

Much will depend on how many railwaymen, Paris Metro and power workers obey the call for a second day of stoppage today. Only one in seven high-speed trains and one in five Metro trains ran yesterday. Just over 60 per cent of railway staff and 40 per cent of Metro and power workers failed to turn up for work – enough to disrupt services but substantially fewer than obeyed a one-day strike last month. Tens of thousands of rail and power workers, and sympathisers, marched through Paris and other large cities.

Some strikers are still determined to extend their walkout to the weekend and beyond, merging with other public-sector industrial action over pay and job cuts which is planned next week. With many students already boycotting lectures and blocking campuses in protest against M. Sarkozy's mild university reforms, France could yet be plunged into a classic battle of wills on the streets: right v left, reform v status quo.

On the whole, however, it seems that both President Sarkozy and the more moderate unions are prepared to give ground.

The transport and power strikes were called to protest against M. Sarkozy's attempts to reform the special privileges which allow 500,000 public-sector workers to retire early on full pensions. The issue has achieved symbolic importance. The last attempt to reform these rights in 1995 produced three weeks of strikes which almost brought France to its knees.

The government has made some concessions, allowing rail, Metro and power workers to retire at 50 or 55 –if they accept reduced pensions. However, M. Sarkozy has insisted that, to qualify for full pensions, all workers must work for at least 40 years – instead of the 37.5 years usually worked by those in special pension schemes.

The CGT had previously insisted it would only take part in new national negotiations with both the government and industry leaders. The government said it was up to each state industry to negotiate with the unions individually.

The head of the CGT, Bernard Thibault, broke this log-jam yesterday by suggesting there should be industry-by-industry talks, but they should also include government representatives. Ministers agreed and efforts were being made last night to get the talks under way.

Beyond the technicalities, symbolic points have been conceded on both sides. Most union leaders are no longer dismissing out of hand the main lines of the Sarkozy reforms. Their concessionary attitude, including that of M. Thibault, may have been influenced by polls showing more than 70 per cent of the French people back pension reform.