Strike aims to force govt to talk-French union boss

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PARIS, Oct 16 (Reuters) France's biggest union today called for a massive turnout in a nationwide strike this week to force the government to negotiate over its plans to scrap pension privileges enjoyed by a minority of workers.

CGT union chief Bernard Thibault accused the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy of trying to push the changes through without discussion, and warned Thursday's strike was only the start of protests over pensions, wages and jobs.

''We are calling for mobilisation ... to force the government to sit down again at the negotiating table after this day of mobilisation,'' Thibault said on France 2 television.

''That's why we hope (turnout) will be as big as possible.'' Rail, bus, power, gas and some other public sector workers are to down tools in protest at moves to end their right to retire early than workers in other industries.

The state rail network SNCF expects only 10 percent of trains to run, and the cross-Channel Eurostar rail link and airports also face severe disruption.

Sarkozy made reform of the ''special regime'' pension schemes a key election pledge and Thursday's protest is the first major test of his resolve to implement structural reforms economists say are needed to restore public finances and lift growth.

National strikes can have a powerful political resonance in France, where lengthy protests in 1995 paralysed the country and mortally wounded the then conservative government, which was forced to abandon similar pension reforms.

COUNTER-PROTEST The CGT's Thibault said times had changed since then. Unions accept the need to overhaul the pensions system -- unions, business and government are due to discuss broader reforms in 2008 -- but say workers should not bear the brunt of the effort.

With another ''Black Thursday'' looming for commuters, the head of France's small- and medium-sized business federation, the CGPME, said he would organise counter-demonstrations if strike action dragged on as 12 years ago.

''We can accept one day, but we will not accept that it carries on as in 2003, with three consecutive weeks of strikes,'' CGPME president Jean-Francois Roubaud told Europe 1 radio, referring to protests against another round of pension reform.

''We will take to the streets. I will mobilise my business leaders and citizens who understand that you cannot bring a country to a halt simply because we are going to modify the special regimes, which are going to the wall and which give preferential treatment,'' he said.

Devised to take into account the arduous nature of some jobs, the special regimes allow some employees to retire after 37.5 years of work rather than the 40 required of others.

The government changes have public support, though recent opinion polls have seen Sarkozy's popularity slip, something pollsters attribute to a loss of support on the left as well as unhappiness over low growth and rising healthcare costs.

Reuters GL GC1433

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