French public transport strike draws to a close

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PARIS, Nov 23 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged today to press ahead with his economic reform plans after transport workers decided to end a nine-day strike that has been the toughest test yet of his presidency.

The number of trains on the national rail system and the Paris underground approached near-normal levels for the first time since the dispute started on Nov 13, although a full service was not expected until the weekend.

''I have no intention to stop the reform movement, no intention to slow it down, no intention to forget my promises,'' Sarkozy said. ''I made commitments. They will be kept.'' Allies of Sarkozy hailed the end of the stoppages as a success for him and his government, but hardline unions said they would strike again in December if they failed to win satisfaction in the negotiations.

However, the fact that unions have agreed to discuss scrapping special pension privileges in the transport and energy sectors was a first, and in stark contrast to 1995 when a previous reform was withdrawn following a massive strike.

Sarkozy has kept an uncharacteristically low profile during the standoff, his first major test since his election in May, and conservatives said he handled the issue deftly.

''The success of the Sarkozy method,'' right-wing daily Le Figaro, which typically backs the president, said in a headline.

Even former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a critic of Sarkozy's despite being a fellow conservative, praised the head of state, who has staked his reputation on the reform.

''The expressed concern of not politicising, not seeking to ensure that there is a winner and a loser, is the right strategy in social matters,'' Villepin told France 2 television.

CONCESSIONS AHEAD Sarkozy has refused to back down on the main element of his reform -- ending early retirement rights for most of the workers who enjoy this privilege and index-linking their pensions to inflation rather than salaries.

However, he has indicated he is ready to make concessions in other areas, such as pay, and the French media have reported that an eventual deal might cost the SNCF railways alone 100 million euros (150 million dollar) a year in salary hikes and perks.

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 it to stop the dispute escalating.

Sarkozy said he would address the public's economic concerns after returning from a trip to China next week.

''People have expressed anxieties and expectations over purchasing power and employment over the past few weeks,'' he said. ''I will tell the French what the government's action in the next months will be.'' The SNCF said it expected high-speed TGV rail links between Paris and other cities to run normally on Friday, while two out of three regional train services would be operating.

The Paris transport RATP network said 80 per cent of its buses and trams were running, a marked improvement on recent days, and 11 out of 14 metro lines were functioning normally.

''I think the worst of the crisis is over because traffic is progressively returning to normal,'' Sarkozy's social affairs adviser Raymond Soubie told Europe 1 radio.

The government has said the strikes cost the economy up to 400 million euros (593 million dollar) a day.

REUTERS RC HS2120

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