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Transport workers protest against Sarkozy's bid to cut labor protections

In a potential breakthrough, Sarkozy accepted a union proposal for talks between government, unions and companies affected by the strikes about contested retirement reforms, his chief of staff Claude Gueant told the daily Le Monde.

The president ordered letters to be sent to unions laying out plans for negotiations, his spokesman David Martinon said. Such negotiations could allow Sarkozy to secure the pension reform and protect his reformist credentials, but on terms the unions can swallow.

"It's advancing," said Prime Minister Francois Fillon after meeting with Sarkozy and Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand.

Transport workers trying to hang on to special retirement benefits that Sarkozy wants trimmed are threatening an open-ended strike with daily votes on whether to continue, something no one wants especially the public.

"I support the idea of strikes, but not this strike," said 25-year-old Xavier Michel, who skated 8 kilometers (5 miles) to his advertising job. This strike, he said, hurts "the little guys like us" who are "basically taken hostage."

Employees of the national rail and subway authorities and the gas and electric companies walked off the job to protest plans to extend the retirement age for some 500,000 public sector workers and change other special benefits certain sectors have enjoyed for more than a half-century.

Unlike the scattered strikes that have long dogged France including an Oct. 18 transport strike seen as a warning volley against Sarkozy's reforms this labor action is a decisive test of Sarkozy's campaign promise to overhaul France to make it more competitive.

The strikes started Tuesday night when the SNCF rail authority halted service on most lines. Just 90 of 700 trains were running.

The Eurostar between Paris and London was running as usual though the strike hit the same day the cross-Channel train line launched a faster route heading into London's St. Pancras station.

Paris transit workers joined in Wednesday. Gas and electricity workers went on strike, too, threatening targeted blackouts to illustrate their grievances over the retirement reform.

Students protesting a university reform added a volatile note to the transport strike, blocking at least 35 of France's 85 universities.

"I find it abominable and above all absurd," said a fuming Sorbonne French professor, Laurent Susini, trying unsuccessfully to get past a handful of pickets.

Students opposed to the blockages were doubly punished without transport and unable to get into class.

"Not only did it take me an hour and a half to get here, I can't get in," said law student Michael David.

Paper signs reading "No Service" dangled at subway stations and bus and tram stops in the capital. The highway circling the city was jammed with vehicle traffic from before dawn, as many commuters drove to work. Others walked or used the city's popular new rent-a-bike system.

Opinion polls suggest Sarkozy has the public on his side as most agree with his arguments that retirement rules are outdated, unfair and too costly.

"I agree with the reforms but Sarkozy is going too quickly," said Vidal Madou, who expected to spend more than an hour to make the usual 30-minute trip to the construction materials store where he works.

"This is the first government we have had in a very long time that is capable of saying 'We are going to carry out reforms."' said Bruno Fourquin, taking a rare suburban train into Paris. "They have to hold firm."

Sarkozy wants everyone including the rail and utility workers, sewer workers, state bank employees and workers at the Paris Opera and the Comedie Francaise theater company to retire after 40 years of service instead of the 37.5 years they currently work.

Despite tough talk, it was the head of the Communist-backed CGT union, Bernard Thibault, who proposed a potential opening, suggesting talks with various companies and relaxing earlier demands that it would only negotiate with the government directly, according to Le Monde.

Sarkozy's top aide, Gueant, told Le Monde that the union leader had moved so that "the crisis can be eased on the first day of conflict."

Another Sarkozy aide, Henri Guaino, warned on LCI television Wednesday that if this reform is jettisoned, "all the reforms will be compromised."

The conservative Sarkozy is being pressured from all sides as his government moves ahead with cost-cutting reforms, from trimming bureaucracy to shuttering courthouses and allowing universities to charge tuition and attract private funding.

The head of the main employers' association, Medef, called the strike embarrassing to France's global image. Laurence Parisot urged the French to "abandon this taste, which I think is a bit masochist, for conflict, for struggle."

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