Mediator looks for light at the end of tunnel

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The Independent Online
Paris - The French government and trade union representatives seemed yesterday to be cautiously looking for a way out of the two-week- old protests that have halted much public transport,, closed schools and threatened air services, writes Mary Dejevsky.

The government-appointed mediator for the national railway company, SNCF, Jean Matteoli, started work yesterday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his appointment, receiving leaders of all the striking unions. The fact that the unions agreed to see Mr Matteoli, a former minister who is described as an expert conciliator, was greeted as a sign that the rail dispute at least might be amenable to a settlement.

As well as objecting to the government's overall plans for welfare reform, the railwaymen have a special grievance in a restructuring plan that was due to be finalised in the middle of this month. Designed to reduce SNCF's accumulated debt and large operating losses, the proposals include provision for the regionalisation of loss-making branch lines, which railwaymen believe will lead to closures and job losses.

Even as the meeting began, however, there was evidence of confusion on the government side as to precisely what might be included in any talks. The unions have asked that the whole plan be suspended, but the industry minister, Franck Borotra, said yesterday the government had no intention of withdrawing it. The director of SNCF, who insisted last week that the plan was his and not the government's, has said nothing.

Although unions in other sectors appeared open to the possibility of wide-ranging talks on pensions and other questions offered by the social affairs minister, Jacques Barrot, there was no sign of the public sector strikes cracking, and on the main question of welfare reform, the government and unions still seemed far apart.

Having shelved the planned fiscal reform for at least a year, proposed a special commission to examine not only the terms of public sector pensions, but also their equivalence with those in the private sector, and offered talks on the rail plan, the government has now made concessions on almost every issue except the principle and main structure of the welfare reform. But there was no sign yesterday of strikes diminishing.