PARIS, Oct 18 (Reuters) Striking transport workers shut down most of France's rail network today in a protest over pensions, posing the biggest test yet of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ability to push through economic reforms.
Unions called the 24-hour strike from late yesterday in an attempt to force concessions from the government, which plans to scrap privileges that allow a minority of public sector workers to retire as early as 50 or 55 years old.
Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, said abandoning the so-called ''special regime'' pension schemes would be the first step towards smaller pensions for all workers.
''We're heading towards a generalised impoverishment of pensioners in the future, in both the public and private sectors,'' he told France Inter radio.
Rail operator SNCF said 73.5 per cent of workers joined the strike and only a fraction of trains were running.
Public transport in Paris was also badly hit, promising an uncomfortable commute home for many workers, but services outside the capital were running more normally.
Striking gas and power utility staff, who would also be subject to the new pension rules, cut 10,000 megawatts (MW) or almost 16 per cent of production capacity at EDF
On a bright day in Paris, a rally organised by unions attracted thousands of placard-waving protestors. ''Today it's the special regimes but tomorrow it's the whole system they will attack,'' said Richard Benejean, a researcher for EDF.
FLIGHTS The government wants to put employees paying into the ''special regimes'' on an equal footing with civil servants and private sector workers, increasing their contribution period from 37.5 years to 40 years.
''If we don't reform these special regimes today, no-one will be able to guarantee their staff in five, 10 or 15 years, that they will be able to pay their pensions,'' Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand told parliament.
The special funds were introduced after World War Two, mainly for workers in physically demanding jobs, but they are running deficits that will cost the taxpayer an estimated 7 billion dollars) this year.
Sarkozy vowed to phase out the special regimes during his election campaign this year and has offered talks on how best to do that while refusing to back down on the principle.
Lengthy protests mortally wounded a conservative government 12 years ago and it was forced into a humiliating climbdown over similar pension reforms.
All sides have played down the 1995 parallel. An Ifop poll on Wednesday showed 82 per cent of people backed reform of the ''special regimes'', and 61 per cent opposed the strike.
The senior members of the Socialist opposition and even unions agree state pensions must be reformed but argue that workers should not bear the brunt of any changes.
REUTERS SKB RAI1947