Source AP ©

Public transport in France goes on strike, paralyzing nation

A public transport strike billed as France's biggest in years was in full swing Thursday, with commuters forced to walk, pedal or drive to work in large numbers - and many staying home.

The full impact of the walkout wouldn't be known for hours, but unions were hoping to send a message to conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy by bringing buses, subways and trains to a grinding halt across France.

Unions are protesting Sarkozy's plan to trim special retirement packages for some workers, part of his pledges to cut back on costly public services. The strikes started Wednesday evening and were to last through Thursday.

A large numbers of cyclists within Paris during the early rush. But in the suburbs, many people appeared to choose to take a day off or work from home instead of taking a greater risk of venturing into Paris.

Jammed subway platforms dotted the capital, while commuter train platforms were unusually empty. Some commuters heading to work said they feared not being able to get back home later Thursday.

Several commuter rail lines in Paris were shut, and transport authority RATP said traffic would be "virtually nil" on most of its subway lines.

The national rail network said it would be "nearly paralyzed." Eurostar trains to London and connections to neighboring European countries were also to be disrupted.

While cars clogged Paris streets earlier and in greater numbers than on most days, highways around the capital were oddly empty. The national road information service said that at 8 a.m. there were only 76 kilometers (47 miles) of traffic jams, down from 157 kilometers (97 miles) on an average Thursday.

Sarkozy appeared unfazed, saying Tuesday night he would push through the reforms regardless of protests because "that's what I was elected for." He was to be in Portugal at a EU summit Thursday.

Labor leaders hoped the walkout would recall 1995 strikes that paralyzed the country and sapped then-President Jacques Chirac's drive for reform. Those strikes - also involving retirement rights - dragged on for three weeks.

The strikes could overflow into Friday. Three train federations were calling for a daily vote on whether to extend the strikes. And even if the protests end Thursday, train traffic was expected to remain disrupted Friday, train officials said.

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