French unions continue transport dispute

French unions are mounting a sixth day of nationwide transport strikes today, despite signs the movement is running out of steam and heading towards negotiations.

French unions are mounting a sixth day of nationwide transport strikes today, despite signs the movement is running out of steam and heading towards negotiations.

The strikers are challenging President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid to scrap their early retirement rights, a reform seen as pivotal to his broader plans to overhaul the French economy.

Meanwhile, protesters fed up with shuttered tube stations and the union walkout they say is holding the country hostage, took to the streets with its own “Stop the Strike” demonstration yesterday.

The group, calling itself 'Liberté Cherie', or 'Beloved Liberty', drew around 8,000 people to its march in eastern Paris, according to police estimates.

That is nothing like the masses that turn out for union-organised events, but the anti-strike group’s point is popular, with polls indicating that the public is siding with Sarkozy over the pension reform.

“Liberate the Metro!” chanted the marchers, a mix of students and middle-aged Sarkozy supporters bundled against a damp, biting cold.

“Papa is Tired: Stop Making him Walk”, read a sign carried by one little boy perched atop his father’s shoulders.

The strike has tangled the nationwide train network and Paris public transport since last Tuesday night, though services have increased gradually.

Today, about 300 high-speed TGV trains out of a usual 700 are expected to run, the SNCF rail authority said. On the Paris Metro, just one train in five was expected to be running, with some tube and commuter lines shut entirely and just 40% of buses in circulation.

Transport unions are hoping to carry their momentum until tomorrow, when hospital, school and other public sector workers plan their own strikes over planned job cuts.

At a meeting yesterday, six leading unions agreed in principle to a proposal by the SNCF management for talks on Wednesday on the pension reform. The train drivers themselves – who have been tougher than the union leadership – will consider the proposal today.

The key question is whether the government would join Wednesday’s talks. Labour minister Xavier Bertrand praised the unions for agreeing to talks, but repeated calls for strikers to return to work before negotiations could begin.

“There are things that are moving, that are unlocking, but not fast enough for my taste,” he said after a meeting with Sarkozy yesterday.

One union, CFDT, has already called for its members to return to work, and another, CFTC, suggested yesterday that it could soon do the same. The larger unions, however, were holding out.

For Sarkozy’s left-wing opponents, the retirement reform is a symbol of what they see as a greater threat to the social and industrial relations protections that have underpinned France’s economy for decades.

But yesterday’s marchers said those protections and what they called the “dictatorship of the unions” were holding France back.

“All of France is suffering because of a few strikers,” said Liberté Cherie organiser Guillaume Vuillemey.

The anti-strike march was unusually patriotic for a French protest and resembled rallies staged by far-right groups, with some singing the Marseillaise and many waving French flags.

French commuters have long been accustomed to strikes and have tried and trusted methods worked out for coping with transport walkouts – car pooling, bicycling, inline skating, working from home...or taking a day off. Those methods will be put to the test again this week.

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