PARIS, Nov 21 (Reuters) Widespread sabotage has damaged France's high-speed rail network and caused huge delays to services already hit by an 8-day transport strike, a senior executive at the SNCF state railways said today.
''A certain number of actions have taken place at the same time on the high-speed rail network,'' SNCF number two Guillaume Pepy told RTL radio.
''We are faced by a co-ordinated act of sabotage of installations which are aimed at preventing the expected return of (rail) traffic.'' The majority of railwaymen are now back at work ahead of the resumption of negotiations in their dispute over pension reform.
Pepy said arsonists had damaged cabling on the eastern TGV line, preventing trains from running since 1030 hrs IST. On the western side of the network ''a very important fire'' had damaged 30-km of signalling, Pepy said.
The SNCF said it expected the sabotage to cause delays of three hours elsewhere on the TGV network that carries the bulk of traffic between the major cities in France.
Pepy did not say who was behind the sabotage although SNCF management had said union militants might try to damage the network to prevent a return to normal on the network.
The French government, unions and management are due to resume negotiations TOday morning aimed at ending the strike that has snarled nationwide rail traffic and hit public transport in Paris since November 14.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday said he would not go back on his contested pension reform, which ends longstanding privileges for some state workers, but indicated he was ready to make concessions in other areas.
The head of France's business lobby today said the dispute was causing huge damage to the economy.
''The cost of the strike is quite simply incalculable. That's to say it is probably gigantic. It is a real catastrophe for our economy,'' Laurence Parisot told RTL radio.
Although the vast majority of railwayman and Paris transport workers have returned to work, a hard core of unionists have refused to halt their strike and are demanding the complete withdrawal of the centre-right government's pension reform.
The pensions showdown is the biggest challenge Sarkozy has faced since taking office in May and his government fears its credibility would be destroyed if it gives in to the unions.
Bolstering Sarkozy, an opinion poll published in the conservative Le Figaro newspaper today said 68 per cent of people thought the strike was not justified.
Teachers, postal workers and civil servants returned to work today after a one-day strike on Tuesday called to protest against the government's economic programme.
Reuters SG DB1357