French govt, unions refuse to give ground on strike

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PARIS, Nov 12 (Reuters) France prepared for an extended rail strike from this week as both unions and the government dug in over a pensions dispute that is shaping up as the first major battle over President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic reform plans.

Rail, public transport, electricity and gas unions plan their second nationwide strike in a month on November 14, with some warning of an indefinite stoppage to protest against plans to scrap special pension rules for public sector transport workers.

But Sarkozy repeated his determination to press ahead with reforms of the so-called ''special regime'' pension schemes, which he says are outdated, unaffordable and unfair to other workers who do not receive the same benefits.

''I said before I was elected, what I would do,'' he told reporters in Berlin following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

''We will pursue dialogue, we will not be rigid. The door will always be open for dialogue. But we will do these reforms because they have to be done.'' Sarkozy said reforms had allowed Germany to cut unemployment and improve the state's finances and his host Merkel encouraged the French leader to pursue his efforts to effect change.

''We have always followed the French government's reform programme. I wish President Sarkozy much success in the implementation of his programme,'' Merkel said.

The first strikes are due to begin at 0030 hrs on Tuesday when rail unions begin an indefinite stoppage. They will be followed on Wednesday by Paris public transport workers and employees of electricity group EDF and gas company GDF.

Sarkozy has pledged to change the special pension regime that allows some workers to retire after paying pension contributions for 37.5 years rather than 40 for other workers.

But he has been fiercely opposed by unions who called a one-day nationwide strike on the issue last month that ended up crippling the Paris metro system for days.

LONG STRIKE Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT rail union rejected further talks on the government's terms and said he was prepared for a long strike.

''I think the government has the means to come out of this conflict without losing face by creating the conditions for a national negotiation which has not taken place,'' Didier Le Reste, head of the CGT railway workers, said later in the day.

Around one million public sector pensioners benefit from the special pension regimes, which were introduced after World War Two for workers in especially arduous jobs.

But only around half a million active workers pay into the scheme, which has to be topped up by the government.

Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand, the minister in charge of the dossier, told the daily Le Parisien the government was not prepared to make more concessions. ''The status quo is unthinkable,'' he said.

The government has had talks with unions and employers but it wants the details of the changes to be worked out by individual corporations like the rail operator SNCF or Paris public transport authority RATP.

Thibault wants a broader set of talks about overall reform involving the government, unions and employers and accuses the government of trying to divide the movement by negotiating individual agreements with different organisations.

REUTERS PJ RAI0011

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