December 16, 1995
Web posted at: 8:50 p.m. EST (0150 GMT)
PARIS (CNN) -- One day after French rail workers voted to end their 22-day strike over the government's proposed welfare reforms, thousands of public sector employees took to the streets across the nation Saturday in a show of defiance and strength. Union leaders called for another day of protest next week to prevent the strike from fizzling out.
Police put the total number of demonstrators Saturday at 600,000, while the two main unions behind the strike, the Communist-backed CGT and the independent Force Ouvriere, said more than 2 million had turned out.
Leading the marches in Paris and other major cities were railroad workers, who were jubilant over Prime Minister Alain Juppe's concessions to them and voted Friday to start returning to work.
Joining in Saturday's march were tens of thousands of workers from Marseilles, Toulouse, Grenoble and Juppe's own bastion, Bordeaux.
"We're not planning to give up. The railroad workers' victory has given everyone more confidence," said Louis Viannet, secretary-general of the CGT, which is calling for another day of protest Tuesday.
The hard-line stance adopted by rail workers compelled Juppe, who initiated the welfare reforms in a bid to cut France's mounting deficit, to soften his austerity package. Juppe agreed to freeze a plan to restructure the SNCF state railroad system and backed down on higher retirement ages for drivers.
Other union grievances have also been met and the government has agreed to talks involving both unions and employers on eventual reforms to the welfare system. "If the government had consulted us on their plans first, we wouldn't have had to go on strike for three weeks," said railway union leader Bernard Thibault.
But apparently, Juppe's compromise has only whetted the unions' appetites. "We have won a battle, but not yet the war," said Jean-Jacques Carmentran, head of the rail branch of the non-partisan but militant Force Ouvriere.
The unions warn they'll be on the streets again to keep up their pressure on the government.
In the capital, where a few metro lines began running again after almost three weeks of stoppage, the unions claimed a turnout of 300,000 Saturday. Police put the figure at 56,000.
For three weeks, Parisians have struggled through some of the worst traffic jams on record, many resorting to anything from bicycles to boats to beat the transport strike.
Meanwhile, Juppe confirmed that he would not yield to union demands for a wide-ranging "social summit" to be advanced, and was maintaining the date for next Thursday.
Juppe's reform package would have affected public sector employees' pensions, working hours and health benefits.
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