French strike bites despite moves to talk

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PARIS, Nov 15 (Reuters) French trade unions voted today to extend a two-day transport strike which has caused widespread disruption, despite moves by the government to launch negotiations over contested pension reform.

France's SNCF railway company said less than half its staff were on strike today, against more than 60 per cent yesterday, but workers from several rail unions voted to keep up the strike until at least tomorrow.

Rail unions said they had sent a letter to the government, seeking a meeting tomorrow to lay the groundwork for further talks, but they said they were still not ready to hold direct negotiations on the substance of the dispute.

''I insist that this is not the beginning of negotiations,'' Didier Le Reste, head of the CGT union's rail division, said after a meeting with other union representatives.

The strike in France is the biggest test yet for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was elected on a pledge to do away with the special pension regimes, which allow some state sector employees to retire after 37.5 years of work against 40 years for everyone else.

He has indicated he is willing to make secondary concessions, but has vowed not to give way on this central point, confident that public opinion is firmly behind him.

Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand said it was not possible to hold talks with unions while the stoppages continued.

''You cannot have a strike and negotiations ... at the same time,'' he told France 3 television.

CGT workers at the Paris transport authority RATP also voted to stay away from work. ''So we imagine that Friday will go much the same way as today,'' union spokesman Jacques Eliez said.

Although slightly more trains, buses and metro trains were operating on Thursday, many workers struggled to reach their office for a second day running and traffic jams clogged roads leading into Paris from well before dawn.

A separate strike also hit train passengers in neighbouring Germany as train drivers there walked off the job in a long-running wage dispute with rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

NEGOTIATIONS PROPOSED The French government wrote to unions yesterday proposing a month for negotiations between the workers, the companies concerned and government representatives.

''This strike must stop. It's a strike that penalises users and that will not result in social progress,'' Prime Minister Francois Fillon told the Senate upper house of parliament.

Many unions say the government offer is not clear enough and they have called on the strike to continue into the weekend.

However, Francois Chereque, head of the moderate CFDT union, called on members to go back to work to allow time for talks to succeed .

In the Paris area, one in three or four metro trains were running, against at best one in five yesterday, but much of the regional rail network was at a standstill.

The SNCF said 250 out of 700 fast TGV trains would be operating tomorrow, compared to 150 today. Traffic was also set to be disrupted on Saturday and Sunday, it said.

Most energy workers returned to work today at the end of their scheduled 24-hour stoppage although unions said protests would continue at the huge Fos-sur-Mer liquefied natural gas (LNG) until tomorrow morning.

The government also faces troubles with students protesting against a reform of the university system. Some 30 universities were blocked by protesters today.

Reuters RC VP0200

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