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Sarkozy's union fight halts France

  • Story Highlights
  • Paris at near-standstill as French transport workers begin industrial action
  • 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) -- Traffic gridlock gripped the French capital Wednesday as President Nicolas Sarkozy's promised labor reforms went head to head with transport and utility unions who have launched an open-ended nationwide strike.

One in 15 subway trains and about 15 percent of buses were operating Wednesday but the strike halted commuter trains around the Paris area, stranding many suburban commuters.

Roads into the city were jammed as commuters turned to their cars. "I'm fed up with this," said one woman at Saint Lazare train station, where electronic boards informed passengers of severe disruptions to service.

Seven labor unions went on strike Tuesday evening, angry over Sarkozy's plans to reform pensions. Photo See images of the strike »

The reforms focus on special pension plans which allow some workers -- mostly train drivers -- to retire as early as 50.

About 500,000 French employees, mostly in the transportation sector, qualify for this plan. The vast majority of France's 27 million workers do not.

The strikes coincide with the commercial launch of a new Eurostar service connecting Paris Gare du Nord with the new St. Pancras terminal in Waterloo.

Services are not expected to be disrupted, but passengers alighting in Paris will be unable to make connections.

The strikes are the second industrial action to face Sarkozy since he took office earlier this year promising to revive France's economy and open up the job market by stripping away enshrined labor protections.Video CNN's Robin Oakley explains the problems facing Sarkozy »

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."

Polls say the majority of French people are not behind the unions. One published Monday by the Paris daily newspaper Liberation showed 59 percent supported the government while only 35 percent backed the unions.

A half-hour before the 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.

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.

An eighth transportation union decided to negotiate a settlement with the government and did not strike. Video Watch how strike will cripple transport networks »

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.

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.


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

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