France braced for crippling transport strike

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PARIS, Nov 13 (Reuters) French commuters face travel chaos late today when unions launch a rolling national strike over proposed changes to their pensions, in a fresh test of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ability to carry out his reforms.

Rail unions begin an indefinite stoppage at 8.00 p.m. (0030 IST), while Paris public transport workers and employees of electricity group EDF and gas company GDF are due to walk off the job tomorrow.

The state-run SNCF rail network said it expected only 90 out of 700 high-speed intercity services to run during the strike, while one-tenth the normal number of buses and metro trains were scheduled in the capital Paris tomorrow.

Leftwing students have threatened to join the protest by blocking railway stations, though the main students' and rail unions have distanced themselves from the call.

Sarkozy has repeatedly said the door to talks remained open but insisted he would not back down on the main tenets of the reform of the so-called ''special regime'' pension schemes.

''If this reform isn't done today, no one can guarantee them that in 10 or 15 years time their pensions can still be paid,'' Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand told France 2 television.

Introduced after World War Two for workers in especially arduous jobs, they allow some workers to retire after paying pension contributions for 37.5 years rather than the 40 years demanded of other workers.

The government says the schemes are outdated, unfair and costly, noting that it will have to pump 5 billion euros (7.30 billion dollar) into the special pension funds this year alone to balance their accounts.

The latest industrial action comes less than a month after unions brought public transport to a halt across most of France in protest against plans to scrap the special pension rules. All major newspapers carried the looming strike on their front page.

The left-leaning Liberation headlined with ''Sarkozy on the wrong track'' while Le Figaro, which typically more pro-government, ran with ''The strikes: how Sarkozy wants to manage the balance of power''.

Both sides acknowledge the risk of a long strike which some observers say could last until at least November 20 -- when civil servants and teachers launch a one-day strike against plans to cut 23,000 public sector jobs next year.

But Jean-Claude Mailly, secretary general of the large Force Ouvriere union, played down the chances that the strike would drag on that long.

His caution in part reflects polls showing the unpopularity of the latest strikes compared with similar industrial action in 1995 that sank the then conservative government's attempt to reform pension regimes.

''The situation is completely different (to 1995), this reform was prepared on the political and technical level,'' Anne-Marie Idrac, president of SNCF, told RTL radio.

An LH2 poll in the leftwing daily Liberation showed 59 per cent of French people backed Sarkozy on the issue while a BVA poll in today's business daily Les Echo showed that 55 per cent of French people thought the strike unjustified.

REUTERS CS SSC1343

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