France readies for day of strikes
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French commuters braced for a day of delays and traffic jams as railway and public transport workers began a 36-hour strike on Wednesday evening. The strike was called to protest against government's plans to reform pension schemes.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will come under renewed pressure on Thursday when trade unions hold a nationwide strike against his pension reform plans.
Workers in transport and various other sectors will take to the streets in cities across France in protest at the plan to increase to 41 from 40 the number of years people must work before being entitled to a state pension.
Port workers have also called for a walkout to coincide with the one-day protest, continuing disruptions to shipping after some fishermen pledged to persist with action over rising diesel costs despite government aid plans unveiled on Wednesday.
A year after Sarkozy was elected on a platform of sweeping economic reforms, his approval rating has tumbled, concern over the cost of living has grown and the global markets crisis has forced the government to lower its growth target for this year.
Trains to Paris airports will be halved and roughly one in two trains will be running nationwide, with most disruption focused on regional rail services, transport operators said.
Two in three high-speed TGV trains will be running and fast international links to Brussels and London should be unaffected.
Flights could be affected however, particularly in the morning, France's civil aviation authority has said.
Thursday's protests mark an escalation in anti-government demonstrations this spring, and more are set to follow.
The walkouts are not expected to match the widespread travel chaos seen in November, when transport workers held a crippling nine-day protest against plans to scrap the special pension rights of mainly public-sector workers.
The government then negotiated an end to those entitlements, under which certain categories could draw a full pension after working for 37.5 years rather than the standard 40 years.
Thursday's protests are the first big test of rules brought in by Sarkozy to reduce the effect of strikes on transport by forcing workers to give two days' notice before striking.
Unions are expected to use the day of action as a platform to voice their objections against other government plans, such
as public-sector job cuts and introducing new rules to pressure the long-term unemployed into accepting jobs.
Teachers and pupils have held numerous protests over the past two months against plans to cut 11,200 jobs in education in the next academic year, and teachers' unions have called for another protest on May 24.
Port workers have also held intermittent protests against moves to privatise the loading activities of state-run ports.
Sarkozy's approval rating is at an all-time low for a president one year into his term but opinion polls have differed over the level of support for Thursday's protests.
An IFOP survey for Sunday newspaper le Journal du Dimanche said 57 percent of respondents felt it was not justified, while 43 percent did. But in a Viavoice poll for left-leaning daily Liberation published on Wednesday, 60 percent of respondents said they supported the strike, while 36 percent did not.
French commuters were in for another day of delays and traffic jams as railway and public transport workers began a 36-hour strike on Wednesday evening. The French national railway network SNCF said that two of three scheduled high-speed TGV trains would be running during the job action, but only one of two scheduled regional trains would be operating.
In addition, public transportation was expected to be disrupted in some 55 cities, including Lyon and Marseille, but metros, buses and trams in Paris would run close to normal schedules.
Air traffic was also expected to experience some delays, after unions representing employees for Air France asked their members to walk of their jobs.
The strike was called to protest the government's plans to increase the period of pension contributions of employees expecting to be paid full pensions from 40 to 41 years.
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