France faces more strike delays but end in sight

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PARIS, Nov 22 (Reuters) French commuters faced another day of transport delays today, but an end to a rail strike now in its ninth day appeared to be in sight as many local union committees voted to return to work.

Nationwide rail services and Paris local transport lines ran at reduced capacity but workers in most local committees that met today voted to suspend their strike over President Nicola Sarkozy's plans to cut special pension benefits.

The dispute over the so-called ''special pension regimes'' has provided Sarkozy with his biggest challenge since coming to power in May on a pledge of sweeping economic reform.

Rail operator SNCF said 42 out of the 45 committees that met this morning voted to suspend the stoppages, adding to confidence that the standoff was nearing resolution.

''According to initial returns from the general assemblies, it should be heading towards a return to work,'' Daniel Tourlan, an official at the powerful CGT union said in Marseille.

''We're heading towards a suspension, it's only the form of action that's changing, the determination of the rail workers is intact,'' he said.

The SNCF says support for the strike is dwindling. More trains and Paris metro services were running today than earlier this week, though public transport still remained severely disrupted.

Public opinion has been firmly on the government's side in the dispute but widespread worries over the cost of living have put pressure on the government not to allow the dispute to escalate and get out of hand.

The protests reached a peak on Tuesday when civil servants staged a separate one-day strike over pay and job cuts and some civil service unions warned they might renew their protests next month.

Students in some universities and high schools have kept up their own demonstrations over education reforms and plan to hold rallies in several cities and in front of the oldest Paris university, the Sorbonne, later today.

Rail unions, which met SNCF management yesterday, are expected to continue talking for at least a month. Only the hardline Sud Rail union has refused to take part.

The Paris transport authority RATP was due to hold talks with unions on Monday.

Sarkozy has vowed to stand firm over the central point of the dispute, scrapping a privilege that allowed some public transport workers to retire on a full pension after paying contributions for 2.5 years less than the norm of 40 years.

But the SNCF has offered some concessions such as including certain bonus payments in the calculation of pension rights or pay rises for those approaching retirement and union leaders said that some progress had been made.

Reuters PD RN1826

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