PARIS, Nov 22 (Reuters) A nine-day transport strike that has crippled the French rail network appeared to be drawing to a close today as many local union committees voted to suspend their stoppage and give negotiations a chance.
Both the nationwide railways and the Paris local transport network put more trains, metros and buses into service during the day as an increasing number of staff returned to work following a resumption of talks over a contested pension reform.
The dispute has handed President Nicolas Sarkozy his biggest challenge since taking office in May on a pledge of sweeping reform and the government has said the strikes have cost the economy up to 400 million euros (593 million dollars) a day.
Rail operator SNCF said 42 out of the 45 committees that met on Thursday morning voted to suspend the stoppages, boosting confidence that the standoff was nearing a temporary resolution.
''According to initial returns from the general assemblies, it should be heading towards a return to work,'' Daniel Tourlan, an official at the powerful CGT union said in Marseille.
''We're heading towards a suspension. It's only the form of action that's changing, the determination of the rail workers is intact,'' he said.
The RATP, the Paris transport authority, also said the pattern of union votes suggested a clear trend in favour of a return to work, with 70 percent of bus and tram services and three quarters of metro services running by mid-afternoon.
That was a marked improvement on recent days when just one out of four or five metros were operating.
STUDENT PROTESTS 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 the government not to allow the dispute to escalate and get out of hand.
The protests reached a peak on Tuesday when civil servants staged a separate one-day strike over pay and job cuts, and some unions warned they might renew their protests next month.
Students also kept up a long-running protest over plans to give universities more autonomy, a move some fear will lead to privatisation. Rallies were held across France and hundreds gathered in front of the Sorbonne, the oldest university in Paris, chanting ''No! No! No! to privatisation!'' Rail unions, which met SNCF management and government representatives yesterday, are expected to continue talking for at least a month and only one out of eight labour groups, the hardline Sud Rail, has called on its members to carry on striking during the talks.
Separate negotiations are also underway at the Paris transport authority RATP.
Sarkozy has vowed to stand firm over the central point of the dispute, scrapping a privilege that allowed some transport and energy workers to retire on a full pension 2.5 years earlier than most other employees.
But the SNCF has offered some concessions such as including certain bonus payments in the calculation of pension rights or pay rises for those approaching retirement and union leaders said that some progress had been made.
Reuters RSA RN2119