Railway workers edge closer to ending deadlock

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The Independent Online
Paris - With some public sector workers drifting back to work, but the transport strike still solid, the French government and trade union leaders seemed yesterday to be cautiously looking for a way out of the two week old protests, writes Mary Dejevsky. At the centre of government efforts to get the country moving again were the railwaymen, whose strike 15 days ago triggered strikes and walkouts in the rest of the public sector.

After talks with the newly appointed mediator, Jean Matteoli, the main railwaymen's branch of the CGT union announced that the signing of a controversial plan to restructure the French national railway company, SNCF, would be postponed for at least a week, until the railways' 1996 budget is finalised. The plan is designed to reduce SNCF's accumulated debt and large operating losses and includes provision for the regionalisation of branchlines, which railmen believe will lead to closures and job losses. They are demanding its suspension.

In a further sign that both sides are seeking a compromise, all other striking rail unions also agreed to meet Mr Matteoli, a former minister with wide experience of conciliation in labour disputes. Today union representatives from other branches of the public sector will meet the labour and social affairs minister, Jacques Barrot, although Marc Blondel, leader of the Force Ouvriere union, is still insisting on negotiations at "prime-ministerial level" before there can be any return to work. The FO has called for another day of protest on Tuesday.

Yesterday, there was still no public transport in many French cities, including Paris, and no trains. Flights were badly disrupted on the second day of action by airline staff, and schools were closed for the second day running as teachers remained on strike, but fewer postal, telecoms and museum staff stayed away from work.

So far, most of the concessions have been made by the government, which has shelved its planned fiscal reform for at least a year, offered to discuss not only the terms of public sector pensions, but also the question of contributions, and offered talks on the rail plan. The principle and main structure of the welfare reform, however, remain in place.