Source AP ©

Transport workers threaten strikes against President's plans in France

French transport workers voiced plans to organize strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to cut public service and worker protections. 

Six of the eight rail drivers' unions at the SNCF rail authority announced Wednesday a new nationwide strike, starting Nov. 13 and renewable every 24 hours, according to a joint statement. The unions are protesting plans to cut special retirement benefits for some state workers.

Five energy sector unions threatened Wednesday to stage a walkout Nov. 14 if the government did not reconsider terms of the retirement reform. The unions agreed to make a final strike decision Tuesday, said Maurice Marion of the FNME-CGT union.

While most French support Sarkozy's plans to eliminate the special retirement benefits, his other plans are more sensitive such as sweeping job cuts in France's large public sector.

Hospital workers, teachers and other state workers are planning strikes in late November over those cuts.

Nationwide transport strikes earlier this month over the retirement rights tangled travel in France for days in the first major challenge to Sarkozy's five-month-old presidency. They marked the biggest such movement since weeks of transport strikes in 1995 paralyzed the country and ultimately tempered then-President Jacques Chirac's appetite for reform.

Those strikes were also over changes to the pension system. This time, the unions are protesting the elimination of special rules that allow train drivers and certain other public service workers to retire early. The government says the rules are outdated, unfair and too costly.

The unions' statement accused the government of refusing "to listen to the message" of the strikes earlier this month.

The minister for transportation, Dominique Bussereau, urged dialogue. "I hope that we can rid ourselves of strikes," he said earlier Wednesday.

Sarkozy remained firm after the first round of strikes, which were followed by a string of negotiations with government officials.

France's business world has complained that its international image suffers because of frequent strikes, including a five-day walkout by Air France workers that ended Tuesday. The strike was worse than the company had predicted, affected long-haul flights and international connections despite insistence that only domestic trips would be disturbed.

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