PARIS, Nov 21 (Reuters) Saboteurs staged a co-ordinated attack on France's high-speed rail network early today, causing natiowide delays to services already hit by an eight-day transport strike, the SNCF state railways said.
A senior SNCF executive blamed militant strikers for the damage and said police were hunting those responsible.
''These are genuine acts of sabotage. It is extremely shocking,'' the SNCF's Mireille Faugere told reporters.
''We think it was the diehard (strikers),'' she added.
The majority of railway workers are now back at work ahead of the resumption of negotiations in their dispute over pension reform and the SNCF had predicted that four out of seven high speed TGV trains would have run today -- an improvement on recent days.
The SNCF warned passengers to expect delays of up to four hours on the TGV network, which carries the bulk of traffic between major French cities, as engineers repaired the damage.
Officials said the attacks happened shortly before 600 am local time with arsonists damaging 30-km of signalling in the west and burning cabling on the eastern TGV line. Saboteurs in the north and southeast shut down signal switches.
Bernard Thibault, head of the largest rail union, the CGT, condemned the action. ''If this is indeed an act of sabotage ...
then it is an inadmissible act that is aimed above all at bringing discredit on the profession,'' he told Europe 1 radio.
SEEKING COMPROMISES Government, unions and management are due to resume talks at both the SNCF and the RAPT Paris transport company today in an effort to end a strike that started on November. 14.
The negotiations are scheduled to run into December, but President Nicolas Sarkozy has called on remaining strikers to return to work while details of a possible deal are discussed.
Sarkozy said yesterday he would not renounce the core element of his pension reform, which entails an end to early retirement rights for transport and energy workers, but indicated he was ready to make concessions in other areas.
The head of France's business lobby said today 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.
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.
An opinion poll published in the conservative Le Figaro newspaper today gave Sarkozy a boost, saying 68 per cent of people thought the transport strike was not justified.
The last time a government tried to reform the so-called special pension regimes was in 1995, but it was forced to backtrack in the face of nationwide stoppages and broad public sympathy for the strikers.
In a separate dispute, teachers, postal workers and civil servants returned to work after a one-day strike yesterday called to protest against the government's economic programme.
They have promised further stoppages in the months ahead.
Numerous French universities also remained disrupted today as part of an on-going student protest against a government reform of higher education.
REUTERS RJ RK1630