France struggles to work as transport strikes bite

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PARIS, Nov 15 (Reuters) French workers struggled into work for the second day today as transport unions continued a strike over a pension reform that is seen as the first big test for President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Slightly more trains were running than yesterday after the moderate CFDT union went back to work to allow time for negotiations over the government's plan to align pensions for a few public sector workers with other pensions.

Unions have announced rolling strikes but neither they nor the government want the conflict to drag on and the two sides appear to have hit on a compromise on negotiating methods which could help find a way out of the conflict.

Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand wrote to union leaders proposing a month for negotiations between the unions, the companies concerned and government representatives.

Unions are due to decide today whether to carry on with the strike after Bertrand's letter.

''There are some new elements and it is up to the workers concerned to decide what to do,'' Didier le Reste, head of railway branch of the CGT union, told RTL radio.

In the Paris area, one in three or four metro trains was running, some regional trains were not running at all, and bus, tram and nationwide SNCF rail services were facing disruption.

The SNCF has also warned trains could be affected tomorrow and over the weekend. Energy workers who were striking on Wednesday were expected to go back to work today although unions said protests would continue at the Fos-sur-Mer gas terminal until tomorrow morning.

Sarkozy has public support for the reform to end the ''special regimes'' introduced last century to let workers with arduous jobs retire after 37.5 years of contributions compared to 40 years for other pensions.

He has said he will not back down on the key elements of the reform which was part of his electoral promises but he is also keen to negotiate.

''A negotiation is always better than a conflict,'' government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez said on France Inter radio.

Bertrand told BFM TV he hoped the strikes would end ''as quickly as possible because it's a second day of hassle'' for transport users.

The government also faces troubles with students protesting a reform of the university system. Some 30 universities were blocked by protestors today and police removed students blocking part of Rennes university in western France overnight.

REUTERS JT BD1350

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