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France paralyzed by strikes

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Striking French transport and energy workers caused widespread disruption for the second time in a month yesterday in a protest over pensions that is the biggest test yet of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform drive.

Train services were disrupted and energy production capacity was reduced, but there were signs the stoppage might come to a swift end after unions and the government agreed a compromise over negotiating methods. “The president thinks there is a chance for the spirit of responsibility to find a way out of the conflict,” said presidential spokesman David Martinon.

Sarkozy has broad public support for the reform, which aims to bring generous pension provisions for about 500,000 public sector workers in line with those of all other workers ahead of a general pension reform next year. The streets of Paris were heaving with mopeds, bikes, cars and pedestrians from before dawn as the capital tried to get to work without its usually efficient metro and bus system. Only a handful of trains were scheduled to run yesterday and Paris’s transport system operated reduced services. But some lines were less affected than predicted and the SNCF rail operator said worker participation was at 61.5%, down from 73.5% on October 18.

Eurostar, which switched London stations to St Pancras from Waterloo for the first time yesterday, was running as normal. Striking energy workers cut about 12% of production capacity at EDF nuclear plants and blocked ships and gas input into the network at the Fos-sur-Mer gas terminal. Sarkozy has said repeatedly he will not back down on his plan to end the “special regimes” that were introduced last century to allow workers with arduous jobs to retire after 37.5 years of pension contributions compared to 40 years for others. Most unions have also stood firm, promising open-ended strikes and raising the prospect that the disruption could drag into next week when civil servants are due to stage a 24-hour stoppage to protest at state sector job cuts. But both sides indicated yesterday they did not want the conflict to last; union and government comments seemed to point to a solution.

Rail walkout in Germany
In neighboring Germany, freight train drivers walked off their jobs yesterday, launching a three-day strike that will spread to passenger services as they step up pressure on the national railway in a bitter pay dispute. The GDL union called freight train drivers out on strike at noon. Drivers of passenger trains will follow starting at 2 a.m. today, the union said. Deutsche Bahn hopes to keep as many as two-thirds of long-distance passenger trains running, and up to half of scheduled regional trains. States in the former East Germany, where GDL is strongest, were likely to be hardest hit. The strike will end at 2 am on Saturday, the union says. (people.com.cn)

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