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Sarkozy, unions set for showdown

  • Story Highlights
  • French transport workers begin industrial action Tuesday night
  • It is warned the strike could continue through to the weekend
  • Workers are striking over Sarkozy's plan to reform pensions
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- French transport workers went on strike Tuesday evening, marking the second major showdown with French President Nicolas Sarkozy over his plan to reform pensions.

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Picture of a board annoucing a strike at a railway station in Strasbourg.

As the world watched, the question was simple: Will Sarkozy stand firm as he has vowed or would he back down?

Shortly after the strike began, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the government is "firm" but would not be "confrontational."

In an interview on the French television network TF1, Fillon said, "It is necessary that this strike end as soon as possible."

One major factor is that, according to the polls, the majority of French people are not behind the unions.

A poll published Monday by the Paris daily newspaper Liberation showed 59 percent of those responding supported the government while only 35 percent backed the unions.

Last month Sarkozy, who won election on the promise to reform French institutions and make them competitive, refused to back down over his reform plans after the first labor confrontation.

A half-hour before Tuesday's strike was to begin, Sarkozy, Fillon and Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau met with the directors of the national and regional rail systems as well as the directors of the public electric and gas utility companies EDF and GDF.

The strike is scheduled to continue into the weekend, according to a spokeswoman for the SNCF, the national railways.

Railway workers began putting down their tools at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) Tuesday, and they expect to be joined 12 hours later by transport staff in Paris, the agency spokeswoman Agnes Grisoglio said.

On Wednesday, commuters will face travel chaos as underground and suburban lines across the capital are hit by the action, she said.

"It is impossible to say at this stage how long this will last. We are awaiting notification from the unions," Grisoglio told CNN.

Under French law, the strike cannot result in a complete shutdown of the transit systems. As a result, 90 of 700 high-speed trains will run, as well as one in every 10 commuter trains.

A total of seven labor unions are participating in the strike action, called to protest the elimination of special rules that allow train drivers and certain other public service workers to retire at 50. About a half million French workers qualify for this plan. The vast majority, 27 million workers, do not.

An eighth transportation union decided to negotiate a settlement with the government and did not strike.

Last month, bus, power, gas and some state employees joined railway workers for strike action that brought the country's transport network to a standstill.

This time, unions representing university students announced they planned to join the strike by attempting to block access to train stations.

Previous attempts to reform the pension plans have failed. In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppe backed down after three weeks of strikes in response to his efforts.

The timing of the strikes is set to coincide with the launch of the new London terminus for the Eurostar's cross-channel service between London and Paris.

Eurostar is switching its home from London's Waterloo train station overnight Tuesday to a new terminus at St. Pancras International, where services are to begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday. The new high-speed service will shave 20 minutes off journey times to the continent following the completion of a new stretch of high-speed track.

Eurostar said it did not expect the strikes to disrupt the launch -- it is planning to run a normal service.

Simon Montague, director of communications for Eurostar, said the company will be relying on British-based crews to staff its service to Paris for the duration of the strike action. The company normally uses staff from Britain, France and Belgium.

Eurostar was forced to cut some scheduled services in October after a similar industrial action coincided with English rugby fans traveling to the World Cup final in the French capital.

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Montague said he was uncertain if the strike action had been timed deliberately to coincide with the launch of the new terminus.

"The timing is unfortunate but I have no idea whether it's coincidental or not," Montague said. "We're an international organization and we are used to working with the conditions on the ground in all the countries where we operate." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Jim Bittermann contributed to this report

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