French workers strike against Sarkozy's reforms

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PARIS, Nov 14 (Reuters) Strikes by French transport and energy workers caused widespread disruption for the second time in a month today in a protest over pensions that is the biggest test yet of President Nicolas Sarkozy's reform drive.

Train services were disrupted and power output and gas supplies reduced. Some stoppages were expected tomorrow but there were signs they might not drag on too long after unions and government agreed a compromise over negotiating methods.

By today night, unions and the government said they were prepared to hold three-way talks with companies in each sector to thrash out a deal, but strikes were set to continue.

''The conditions are in place so that all the trade unions can participate in the company and sector negotiations,'' Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon said in a statement.

Sarkozy has broad public support for the reform, which aims to bring generous pension provisions for about 500,000 public sector workers into line with those of other workers ahead of a general pension reform next year.

The streets of Paris heaved with mopeds, bikes, cars and pedestrians as commuters tried to get to and from work without the usually efficient metro and bus system.

''I have nurses, carers and other workers who do a very hard job and they don't have special pensions,'' said Gerard Alaux, a nursing home owner who was walking 6 km (around 4 miles) to work because his metro line was not working.

''We can't avoid pension reform in this day and age.'' Only a handful of trains ran today and Paris's transport system operated reduced services. But some lines were less affected than predicted and strike participation was down compared to the previous stoppage on Oct. 18.

The transport strike will continue tomorrow but the SNCF rail operator forecast an increase in traffic and the CFDT union said its Paris transport workers would return to work.

The Paris-London rail link Eurostar will run as normal.

Strikes by energy workers cut about 12 per cent of output at EDF nuclear plants and blocked ships and input at the Fos-sur-Mer gas terminal today.

Most power workers are expected return to work tomorrow but the Fos-sur-Mer protest will continue until Friday.

Several thousand union members marched in Paris but their protest was more subdued than in October. In a separate protest some 30 universities were blocked by students angry over education reform.

COMPROMISE Sarkozy has said he will not back down on the main points of his plan to end the ''special regimes'' introduced last century to let workers with jobs deemed especially arduous to retire after 37.5 years of contributions, compared to 40 years for others.

Most unions have also stood firm, promising open-ended strikes and raising the prospect that the disruption could drag into next week when civil servants are due to stage a 24-hour stoppage to protest at state sector job cuts.

But both sides indicated today they did not want a lasting conflict.

Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union, said he would accept company-by-company negotiations with management and government representatives, backing down from his earlier demand for national talks.

Other union leaders, who met with Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand today, said they were also ready for talks.

''Even the CGT seems ready to negotiate, let's not waste any time ... let's negotiate,'' said Jacques Voisin, head of the CFTC union after meeting Bertrand.

The head of the moderate CFDT union said he believed conditions were right for his rail workers to go back to work, but the federation of rail unions, which includes the CFDT's rail arm, called for the strike to continue during talks.

Reuters RC VP0205

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