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Strike cripples France rail network

Paris, May 14 (Reuters): France’s rail network was severely disrupted for a second day today as some unions unexpectedly continued strikes against planned pension reforms ahead of fresh talks between unions and government officials.

Commuters faced more misery after unions at the Paris transport authority (RATP) voted to continue the strikes tomorrow, raising fears of prolonged unrest after more than one million people marched through the streets on “Black Tuesday”.

LCI television described traffic jams on routes into Paris as “apocalyptic”, totalling 200 km in all.

The RATP said only one out of 10 trains was running on some lines on the metro underground railway and others were shut, even though its staff will not be directly affected by the conservative government’s plans to make people pay more and for longer into their pension schemes.

The RER trains that shuttle masses of people into central Paris from the suburbs were completely suspended on some lines. Rail links to the north of Paris were down to one train per hour, state railway company SNCF said. Many commuters, unaware that strikes would continue, were caught unawares and did not plan other ways to get to work.

“I’ve done a U-turn. I made it to Paris, but there were no metro trains so now I’m heading back home,” said Dominique Loree, 48, as she waited at Gare du Nord railway station.

“It’s true that trains have a lot of impact on people and on the government, so it is possible that the strikes will continue, but I hope not,” she added.

Transport minister Gilles de Robien called for the RATP employees to return to work, saying their strike was illegal.

Across the country, high-speed train services were resuming gradually, but only two out of three mainline trains were operating. Air travel was back to normal after residual delays early in the day, aviation authority DGAC said.

Workers are protesting against government plans aimed at shoring up a state-sponsored pension system that faces an “age crunch” as post-war baby boomers flood into retirement.

Social affairs minister Francois Fillon warned unions not to expect any major concessions when they meet today evening to discuss amendments to the government’s proposals.

“I will not drop anything,” he said after a cabinet meeting.

Commentators seized on parallels with late 1995, when former Prime Minister Alain Juppe ditched pension reforms after weeks of protests widely blamed for him losing power in mid-1997.

The left-leaning daily Liberation said that despite Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s warning that “the streets do not rule France”, the unions had driven home their point.

“The streets do not rule France, but they smack governments in the face,” it said in an editorial.

Raffarin sought to counter accusations that the government was closed to dialogue, telling parliament: “All suggestions made in a constructive and responsible spirit will be welcome.”

The government hopes to win over unions before May 28, when cabinet is due to approve the reform. Trade leaders, however, are already gearing up for another nation-wide protest on May 25.

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