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Paris transit workers continue strikes against Sarkozy's reforms

Train, subway and bus travel around France remained a tangle Friday, as Paris transit workers continued their walkout and others gradually resumed service after the first major strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic reforms.

The country's biggest strikes in 12 years, accompanied by nationwide protests Thursday, made their point - that Sarkozy's bid to trim coveted worker protections to try to stimulate Europe's third-largest economy will not be easy.

But many unions agreed to return to work Friday, and polls indicated only limited public support for the strikes, suggesting little momentum for a lasting, crippling stoppage.

The dispute centers on Sarkozy's plans to scrap special retirement privileges for workers in physically tough jobs, such as miners and train drivers, but also for workers at the state bank and national opera house. They are able to retire earlier - and on more generous terms - than the vast majority of France's working population.

The government says the privileges cost too much money and are unfair; workers fearing unemployment lines resist any erosion of the labor protections that have long underpinned France's economy.

Workers for the Paris transit authority continued the strike for a second day Friday, leaving only about a third of subways, buses and trams functioning at morning rush hour. Commuters descended on the city's new rent-a-bike system, roller-bladed, took motorcycle taxis or borrowed their children's scooters to get to work.

Unions at the national SNCF rail authority pledged to resume service but warned traffic would remain irregular throughout the day and urged commuters to find alternative transport.

Train service to and from Britain, Belgium and Switzerland was returning to normal Friday though the SNCF warned of possible delays.

"We cannot get by without this reform," Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand said Friday, insisting that all French workers should have equal treatment so that the state can continue to finance full pensions.

He added, however, that he was determined "to pursue dialogue."

Labor leaders were to meet with the government next week, but said they were ready to consider further strikes as Sarkozy pushes ahead with other, more sweeping reforms.

More than half of workers at the state-run electricity and gas companies also took part in Thursday's strikes.

While officials said there was no serious effect on households or businesses, electricity workers staged a symbolic temporary power cutoff to the president's secondary residence, La Lanterne at Versailles, according to Le Parisien daily.

Some 150,000 marchers took to the streets of Paris and other cities Thursday in union-organized protests, according to police estimates.