France faces more disruption as strikes continue

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PARIS, Nov 16 (Reuters) Striking French rail workers voted today to extend their protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to cut their pension rights but one trade union called for workers to return to work and resume negotiations.

The open-ended strike which started on Tuesday evening, has developed into a trial of strength over one of Sarkozy's main economic reforms and grass-roots union resistance appears to have hardened as workers called for the stoppage to continue.

Individual union chapters held votes throughout the day to decide whether to stay on strike, with the trend suggesting the stoppage would drag on.

''We are continuing because we haven't made any progress on what we wanted,'' said Guillaume Roiron, a member of the CGT union at Saint Lazare station in Paris, after his local chapter voted to carry on with the strike.

''It's likely it will continue tomorrow but of course we don't know what will happen between now and then.'' But leaders of the more moderate CFDT union called for its SNCF rail workers to suspend their strike in exchange for an immediate start of negotiations with government representatives, the unions and the companies concerned.

CFDT members will decide in meetings on Saturday morning whether to heed the call from their leaders and go back to work.

Rail group SNCF said 32.2 percent of staff were striking on Friday against 42.8 percent and 61.5 yesterday and 61.5 on wednesday but intercity, regional and Paris metro lines were all running severely reduced services.

The SNCF said protesters had blocked trains at stations in Paris and a number of other centres with flares and obstacles.

TALKS Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand has said unions would have to return to work for talks to start but most unions first want an agreement on the format for discussion.

Sarkozy urged Bertrand to ''continue his efforts with the aim of restarting work in the two companies still on strike'', his spokesman David Martinon said after Sarkozy met the management of the SNCF, Paris transport network and two energy companies.

Government and unions agreed earlier this week on the need to resume negotiations over the reforms, which centre around plans to hike the retirement age for some workers, raising hopes that the transport stoppage would be short-lived.

Commuters struggling to get home from work in unusually cold weather displayed a mixture of frustration and resignation.

''I think, like lots of people, I have mixed feelings. A bit of understanding that they were given something and it's difficult to give it up,'' said Martin Fraudreau, waiting in Paris for a train to Rouen.

Unions oppose plans to scrap special pension privileges that allow some 500,000 public sector workers to retire on full pensions after paying contributions for only 37.5 years, instead of 40 years for other workers.

The government says the so-called ''special pension regimes'' are outdated, unfair and unaffordable. Unions say the benefits make up for often awkward and difficult working conditions.

Opinion polls show most French people support reform of the system, but with separate protests by students and civil servants brewing and widespread concerns over the cost of living, the protests could widen if the strikes drag on.

Reuters RC VP0018

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