France faces massive protests as strikes combine

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PARIS, Nov 20 (Reuters) France faces massive protests today as a continuing transport strike combines with a walkout by public sector workers in a serious challenge to President Nicolas Sarkozy's programme of economic reform .

Rail workers who oppose Sarkozy's plan to scrap some public sector pension rights have voted to extend their crippling strike into its seventh day, when it will overlap with a one-day walkout by civil servants from postal workers to teachers.

Public sector workers object to Sarkozy's plan to not replace some retiring civil servants in a bid to cut costs, and say their purchasing power is being eroded.

''The mobilisation will be strong. I am not overjoyed and I know that the French people are starting to get fed up,'' Budget Minister Eric Woerth told newspaper Le Parisien.

His ministry issued a statement yesterday saying public sector workers' purchasing power had in fact increased by 2.4 percent in 2007.

Students, who are blocking access to buildings at dozens of campuses across France, and some high school pupils will also take part in today's demonstrations in protest at a government reform granting more autonomy to universities.

School closures caused by the teachers' strike will add to working parents' headaches. Commuters will also be unable to buy a newspaper, and flights could also be disrupted.

Newspaper distributors are holding a one-day strike over planned restructuring, air traffic control staff at Paris's second airport at Orly are walking off the job, and the country's main energy union has called a one-day strike.

State rail operator SNCF says the number of people on strike is falling, but the walkout continues to disrupt services.

SNCF said roughly half its high-speed TGV trains would be running, but the Eurostar link with London would run normally.

However, trains between Paris and the city's airports are expected to be severely disrupted, as are Metro and bus lines.

''Civil servants join a conflict that is running out of breath,'' business daily Les Echos said in a front-page headline.

The hardline Sub Rail union disputed that view in a statement yesterday, saying there had been strong participation.

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.

The government says it will not budge on the main points of its plan to overhaul the system of ''special regimes'', under which some people including rail workers can retire after contributing for 2-1/2 years less than the norm.

Talks with rail unions are due to open tomorrow. French media have quoted Economy Minister Christine Lagarde as saying the strikes were costing France between 300 million and 400 million euros a day.

REUTERS DKS RN0529

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