French rail strikes intensify, enter fourth day

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PARIS, Nov 17 (Reuters) French rail strikes entered a fourth day today with fewer trains running than a day before and no easing was expected before a planned public sector workers strike on Nov 20.

Railway workers voted yesterday to carry on their protest against pension reforms until at least Monday, despite a call from one moderate union to return to work and a tentative offering of talks from the state rail company SNCF.

The SNCF said today it expected only 180 fast TGV trains to run compared with 250 yesterday and 700 on a normal today. Regional and freight train operations and the Paris metro were also disrupted.

The SNCF offered unions late yesterday a procedure to examine their grievances, with a first meeting tentatively scheduled for Nov 21, the day after the planned strike by civil servants and teachers.

Le Monde newspaper reported today the aim was to bring all unions together for ''conclusive'' talks on Dec 10 and 12.

The government has insisted the strike must end before talks begin but an adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy said today a ''gradual'' return to work could be enough.

''We don't have conditions. If there are people with good intentions the lines of communication won't be cut. There simply has to be a gesture of goodwill,'' Raymond Soubie, an adviser to Sarkozy on social affairs, told Europe 1 radio.

The open-ended strike which started on Tuesday evening, has developed into a trial of strength over one of Sarkozy's key economic reforms.

Unions oppose plans to scrap special pension privileges that allow some 500,000 public sector workers to retire on full pensions after paying contributions for only 37-1/2 years, instead of 40 years for other workers.

The government says the so-called ''special pension regimes'' are outdated, unfair and unaffordable. Unions say the benefits make up for often awkward and difficult working conditions.

Opinion polls show most French people support reform of the system, but with separate protests by students and civil servants brewing and widespread concerns over the cost of living, the protests could widen if the strikes drag on.

REUTERS PD RN1709

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