Transit Strikes Gum Up France

President Sarkozy faces a new challenge as planned reforms have French transit workers up in arms and off the job in the biggest transit strike in a decade

Nicolas Sarkozy's first major test as president of France began Wednesday night at 8 pm, as thousands of railway workers walked off the job to protest planned cuts in retirement benefits.

By Thursday morning, the country had ground to a halt as train service and other public transit went off line. The national rail network, SNCF, announced that fewer than one in 12 long-distance trains would be operating, and that almost all regional services were cancelled. Local public transit in 28 cities, including Paris, was also affected.

The train strikes rippled out to French airports, with Paris hubs Charles de Gaulle and Orly expecting "some disruptions" as passengers and employees struggled to find ways to reach the airports.

With the Metro out of commission, Parisians sought alternatives, emptying out the celebrated new Velib communal bicycle system and hitting the boulevards on in-line skates. Traffic was heavy as more workers drove their own cars into Paris.

Sarkozy himself avoided the worst of the chaos: He's currently attending the European Union summit in Lisbon, Portugal, where the local metro system was running smoothly on Thursday, according to the Metropolitano de Lisboa Web site.

French labor unions called the strike for 24 hours, but threatened to extend it if the government failed to negotiate. Sports fans worry that the Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa, scheduled for Saturday, could be disrupted as well.

The strikes were called to protest changes in the French pension system that Sarkozy promised during his campaign in the spring. While ongoing rail strikes in neighboring Germany are motivated by collective bargaining issues -- German train drivers were also striking again on Thursday -- the French are concerned about their entitlements.

The strikes were called to protest changes in the French pension system that Sarkozy promised during his campaign in the spring. Sarkozy wants to eliminate France's "special pension regimes," which date back to the 1930s. The regimes allow workers in jobs considered physically demanding or dangerous at the time -- like railway employees -- to retire at 55 or even 50, and to contribute less to the national pension fund than others.

Sarkozy's government has made reforming or eliminating the system -- which costs an estimated €5 billion ($7.2 billion) per year -- a central part of his overall plan to improve the country's finances. Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand called the reforms "indispensable" on Wednesday.

Railway workers aren't having it. Union official Bernard Thibault told the news agency AFP that they're "fed up with being constantly portrayed as privileged or in some way guilty on the issue of pensions."

But in contrast to the last major strikes to affect the French transport network, a three-week shutdown in 1995 that forced then-president Jacques Chirac to pull back on pension reform, there are signs that this time the striking workers may be on their own. Polls show the majority of French voters support the reforms.

Amidst the chaos, a glimpse of the future: the five-mile long Line 14 in Paris was the city's only fully-functioning public transit. The driverless trains are run by computer.

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