French unions begin strike against Sarkozy reforms

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PARIS, Nov 13 (Reuters) French rail workers began an open-ended strike over pension reforms today, the first step of a major challenge to President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans for economic reform.

Staff at rail group SNCF stopped work at 8.00 p.m. 0030 IST and are expected to stay off until at least the weekend.

With Paris local transport workers and energy unions joining the rail workers tomorrow, the strike could become the biggest France has witnessed in more than a decade. Public servants are due to stop work in a separate dispute on Nov 20.

Sarkozy held last-minute talks with rail and utilities managements today and vowed to stand firm.

''I will pursue these reforms to the end,'' he told the European Parliament. ''Nothing will blow me off course.'' Opinion polls suggest the public supports the president in his bid to reform a system that allows some public sector workers to retire on full pension after paying contributions for 2.5 years less than other workers.

But widespread unhappiness over issues such as the cost of living and housing may fuel broader discontent if the dispute drags on.

Sarkozy said the privileges were outdated and unfair to other workers, and they have become a test of his election pledge to break with the policies of the past and undertake a profound reform of the French economy.

''If we don't do this reform, we may as well stop because we won't do any,'' Henri Guaino, one of Sarkozy's closest advisers, was quoted as saying by the left wing daily, Liberation.

MAJOR DISRUPTION State rail operator SNCF said it expected only 90 out of 700 high-speed intercity services to run during the strike, while 10 percent of the normal number of buses and metro trains were due to be running in Paris tomorrow.

Commuters had a taste of what to expect last month during a one-day stoppage. This disrupted the Paris metro system for days and sympathy for the strikers has been far below what it was during the last battle over the special pensions in 1995.

Transport workers say working conditions may not be as hard as when their pension privileges, or ''special regimes'', were devised more than half a century ago, but say they still suffer low pay and awkward working hours that justify their status.

The government says such schemes are outdated and costly, and it will have to pump 5 billion euros (7.3 billion dollar) into the special pension funds this year alone to balance their accounts.

''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.

The special regimes were introduced after World War Two for workers in especially arduous jobs and allow some workers to retire after paying pension contributions for 37.5 years rather than the 40 years demanded of other workers.

Some observers say the walk-out could last until at least Nov. 20 when civil servants and teachers launch a one-day strike against plans to cut 23,000 public sector jobs next year.

Students are blockading buildings at around a dozen campuses across the country over a reform that has given greater autonomy to universities and are due to protest on the same day.

Reuters RC VP0045

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