French rail unions agree to talks that may end strike

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PARIS, Nov 18 (Reuters) French railway unions agreed today to talks on pension reforms, offering the first hope to thousands of commuters that an almost week-long public transport strike might ease.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Paris to protest the five-day-old strike, but French state-owned railway company SNCF and the Paris metro operator said rail services would continue to be disrupted for a sixth day tomorrow.

Six unions, including the militant Sud Rail that is not officially recognised, said they had agreed to talks with SNCF on Wednesday after first consulting their members.

But the unions stopped short of formally recommending an end to the strike, and few expect any return to normal until after a separate public sector workers protest on Tuesday.

''There will be a representive of the government if there a return to work has momentum ... if more trains and metros are running,'' Employment Minister Xavier Bertrand told Europe 1 radio, without fixing any numerical criteria.

The SNCF said it expected 300 out of 650 fast TGV trains to run tomorrow, up from 250 today. Eurostar trains to London should be normal, while three out of four Thalys trains to Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne are planned, it said.

Paris metro operator RATP said it expected ''practically no'' trains on routes too and from the capital's airports.

ANTI-STRIKE DEMO Despite freezing weather, a crowd of up to 10,000 according to organisers, demanded in Paris that the railway workers return to work and the government not back down from planned reforms.

Police estimated around 8,000 took part in the march.

''Things have got to change,'' said one young marcher, Philippe Roux. ''These guys (the strikers), they've got job security and the right to strike. And when they talk about pensions, for someone of my generation it just makes me laugh.'' Opinion polls show the rail strike is unpopular with most French voters, but railway workers have so far been less keen on talks than union leaders and there remains a chance they will vote on Monday to continue their protest.

''In the absence of (freight) trains, factories, notably in the chemical and car manufacturing sectors, are going to be unable to work,'' Guillaume Pepy, an executive with state-owned rail company SNCF told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview.

A union representing postal workers and staff at France Telecom said today it would join Tuesday's day of action by civil servants and teachers, as has one union at airline Air France. Energy workers at EDF and GDF are due to vote tomorrow on whether to take part.

Students occupying 26 universities in a separate protest over education funding said they would also join, and announced two further student protests for November 22 and November 27.

The government has taken a hard line against the rail strike but knows it cannot afford to let the protest slow the economy or risk a wider social conflict.

An opinion poll for Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed support for President Nicolas Sarkozy at 55 per cent, a drop of four percentage points in the month and his lowest score since being elected in May.

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