France returns slowly to normal after rail strikes

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PARIS, Oct 20 (Reuters) Transport disruption eased in France today as a nationwide strike over pensions tailed off but there were still problems in some regions and a limited underground service in Paris, operators said.

The strike, over plans to scrap special pension rights that allow some public sector workers to retire as early as 50, have provided the first big test of President Nicolas Sarkozy's determination to push through difficult economic reforms.

Didier Le Reste, secretary general of the rail workers' section of the CGT union, said the union was awaiting the outcome of talks with Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand next week before deciding on its future strategy.

''If there is a blockage in the discussions, the CGT will call for further mobilisations, including a longer strike campaign,'' he told the daily Le Parisien.

After bringing nationwide rail services to a halt on Thursday, the strike caused serious disruptions yesterday and brought misery to thousands of commuters, but transport operators said the worst seemed to be over.

CUP FINAL Paris transport authority RATP and rail operator SNCF promised full services by the evening, final of the rugby World Cup at the Stade de France, just to the north of Paris.

Eurostar services from London were operating normally, bringing crowds of England fans streaming in for their team's match with South Africa.

The RATP said traffic was almost back to normal on bus and tram lines. Most metro lines were operating as normal but there was a reduced service on some routes and one service linking the city and suburbs was still suspended.

An SNCF spokesman said there were still problems in some areas but in contrast with Thursday's strike, when 73.5 percent of rail workers walked off the job, fewer than five per cent of the workforce were on strike today.

But the Sud Rail union said workers in the southern cities of Marseille and Avignon voted to continue their action, meaning disturbances in some areas would continue into Sunday.

The strikers have been split by an offer to train drivers in the FGAAC union that would allow them to retire earlier than other rail staff but other unions have pledged to continue and will meet next week to consider further steps.

The special pension conditions were introduced after World War Two, mainly for workers in physically demanding jobs. They are running deficits that will cost the taxpayer an estimated five billion euros (7 billion dollar) this year.


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