French protests intensify, strike extended

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PARIS, Nov 19 (Reuters) France faces a day of massive demonstrations after striking rail workers voted today to extend their walkout into a seventh day, ensuring their protest coincides with that of public sector workers and students.

Tomorrow's combined protests over government reforms are a major test of President Nicolas Sarkozy's election pledges to overhaul France's economy.

Transport workers' strike over Sarkozy's plan to do away with pension privileges granted to some public sector workers will coincide with a day of protests by postal workers, teachers and others over plans to reduce the number of civil servants.

Students who are blocking buildings at dozens of campuses across France will join the one-day protest and energy workers will also hold a one-day strike.

''The mobilisation will be strong. I am not overjoyed and I know that the French people are starting to get fed up,'' Budget Minister Eric Woerth said in an interview with French daily Le Parisien released ahead of publication in Wednesday's edition.

Public transport will continue to be heavily disrupted though Tuesday even though management at state rail operator SNCF and Paris transport firm RATP say the number of striking workers is steadily falling. Many schools will also be closed.

Talks between rail union leaders and the government are due to take place on Wednesday. The large, militant Sud Rail union joined moderates in saying it was prepared to join negotiations sooner, but the government has not taken up the offer.

''The government will not be able to budge on the principles because it has a mandate to move this reform forward,'' Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters.

French media quoted Economy Minister Christine Lagarde as saying the strikes were costing France between 300 million and 400 million euros a day.

Few expect any return to normal until after tomorrow's protests by public sector workers, who oppose Sarkozy's plan to not replace some retiring civil servants and who say their purchasing power is being eroded.

Students are joining them to protest against a government reform granting more autonomy to universities. Newspaper distributors are protesting against plans to restructure their sector, meaning newspapers will not go on sale at newsstands.

France's main energy union has also called for a 24-hour strike as of today night, as have air traffic control staff at Orly airport south of Paris.

State rail operator SNCF said around one in two fast TGV trains would run tomorrow, similar to today but up from one in seven at one point last week. Eurostar trains to London have been running normally.

A heavily reduced train service was expected on lines to and from Paris's airports and on Metro, bus and tram services.

BUSINESS HURT With much at stake, a public relations battle is under way between the government and trade unions over who is responsible for prolonging the transport strike.

Opinion polls show the rail strike is unpopular with most French voters but the government is also under pressure to show it is working for a breakthrough.

A CSA survey in today's Le Parisien newspaper showed confidence in Sarkozy's ability to tackle the country's main problems had fallen to 51 per cent, its lowest since his May election and down from 56 per cent in October.

The government has said it will not budge on key issues, but it may be willing to compromise on some elements to end a strike that is hurting business, and deterring tourists.

''From an industrial point of view, the freight situation is dramatic. There is a real risk of temporary shutdowns in firms which use our services, as is the threat of a break in fuel supply,'' SNCF President Anne-Marie Idrac told La Tribune daily.

Reuters DKS RN0151

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