Long-awaited negotiations with striking transport workers began today, the eighth full day of a walkout which has paralysed train services throughout France.
Already disrupted rail travel was made worse by a series of attacks on high-speed lines that the national rail company described as “co-ordinated sabotage”.
Train drivers, Paris Metro employees and certain other public sector workers have been staying off the job to protest at President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to trim their retirement benefits.
Mr Sarkozy appears to have the upper hand in the test of strength with powerful transport unions – opinion polls say the public strongly supports the president and strikers have been trickling back to work on subway and long-distance trains.
Talks between unions and Paris’s public transport authority kicked off today with a government representative present.
Negotiations with the national SNCF railway authority were scheduled for later in the day.
The talks are expected to last for a month.
The government hopes the opening of the negotiations will prompt a full return to work.
Despite some slight improvements in service, severe traffic disruptions continued today to make travel a test of patience for commuters worn down by more than a week of strikes.
Just over half of the 700 normally scheduled fast trains were running and only one out of four Paris Metros were running.
The SNCF said a “co-ordinated sabotage campaign” overnight had damaged high-speed train installations and would cause delays today.
Bernard Thibault, the boss of the powerful CGT union, condemned the vandalism as an “unacceptable act” and said it was aimed at “discrediting the strike movement”.
The head of France’s main employers’ association described the strike as “a real catastrophe for our economy”.
“The economic cost is incalculable, probably gigantic,” Laurence Parisot told RTL radio.