French strike drags into sixth day, talks possible

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PARIS, Nov 19 (Reuters) French commuters faced fresh misery today but transport unions offered a glimmer of hope that they could end a six-day strike over pension reforms.

The unions will vote later today over the strike action, after agreeing yesterday to reopen talks on government plans to do away with pension privileges that allow some public sector workers to retire 2.5 years earlier than the norm.

Still, most unions have so far stopped short of formally recommending an end to the strike, and while more trains were operating today, few expect any return to normal until after a separate protest by public sector workers tomorrow.

''You can't decree an end to the crisis. But my role as a responsible trade unionist is to look for conditions (for a resolution) and to offer prospects which meet railway workers' expectations,'' Didier Le Reste, head of the rail division of the CGT union, told Le Parisien daily.

The SNCF said it expected 300 out of 650 fast TGV trains to run today, up from 250 yesterday. Eurostar trains to London were expected to be running normally.

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

The reform of the special pension regimes is an important test of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ability to follow through on election promises to overhaul the euro zone's second biggest economy and introduce the flexibility he says it needs to grow faster.

With much at stake, a public relations battle is underway between the government and trade unions over who is responsible for prolonging a transport strike that looks set to overlap with Tuesday's strike by teachers and other public sector workers.

''It is a takeover of their (public sector workers') strike,'' Andre Santini, Secretary of State for the Civil Service, told RMC radio.

Opinion polls show the rail strike is unpopular with most French voters but the government is also under pressure to show it is working for a breakthrough.

A CSA survey in today's Le Parisien showed confidence in Sarkozy's ability to tackle the country's main problems fell to 51 per cent, its lowest since his May election and down from 56 per cent in October.

While the government has said it will not budge on the key principles of the reform, it looks like it may be willing to compromise on some elements in order to end a strike that is causing travel chaos, hurting business, and deterring tourists.

REUTERS SYU BD1456

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