Nationwide French protests put pressure on Sarkozy

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PARIS, Nov 20 (Reuters) French teachers, postal workers and other civil servants began a one-day strike today, joining forces with protesting transport workers to challenge President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to reform the economy.

The nationwide protests over issues ranging from pension reform to the cost of living disrupted schools, trains, postal services and airports. They are the biggest threat to Sarkozy's planned reforms since he was elected president in May.

Asked if the week-old transport strike could hurt the economy, Public Accounts Minister Eric Woerth said: ''Not over several days.

But if it lasted longer, it could obviously have consequences.'' ''When you decide not to work, when you prevent goods from circulating in a certain way, when you prevent people from getting to places, obviously that can be a problem at some point,'' Woerth told France Inter radio.

He said strikes were costing France between 300 million euros (439.2 million dollars) and 400 million euros a day.

The rail workers oppose Sarkozy's plan to scrap some public sector pension rights. They voted to continue the strike they began last week so that it overlapped with today's one-day walkout by civil servants.

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

''A small group of people are holding the country hostage. It's lamentable,'' said 56-year-old Guy Cousserant as he walked to work in the centre of Paris. ''It's very annoying.'' 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 and the polls show unhappiness with both Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

CANCELLATIONS Several flights were cancelled at France's Orly international airport as air traffic control staff went on strike.

Students blocked access to buildings at dozens of campuses across France. Some high school pupils were also expected to take part in demonstrations in protest at government reforms granting more autonomy to universities.

Newspaper distributors began a one-day strike over planned restructuring and France's main energy union called a one-day protest.

State rail operator SNCF has said the number of people involved in the rail on strike has fallen since last week, but services have continued to be disrupted.

SNCF said about half its high-speed TGV trains would run on Tuesday and the Eurostar link with London would run normally. Trains between Paris and the city's airports were expected to be severely disrupted, as were Metro and bus lines.

Talks with rail unions are due to open on Wednesday.

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.

REUTERS PD ND1530

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