( AFP ) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to stand by his economic reforms Tuesday despite a strike that has shuttered much of the rail network and sent hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets.
Speaking before an assembly of mayors, the president said that he had been elected in May to bring in a "clean break" from the past and that he would honour the mandate -- even as a transportation strike threatened to enter its eighth day Wednesday.
"We will not yield and we will not retreat," Sarkozy said.
"Let there be no doubt. What needs to be done will be done. What needs to be accomplished will be accomplished. The French elected me to do it, and I will not betray them."
It was the president's first public address since the start of a strike last week by railway-workers against plans to change their "special" pension system.
Causing immense inconvenience to commuters and costing up to 400 million euros (590 million dollars) daily by government estimates, the strike was joined Tuesday by a separate protest staged by hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses, tax officials and other state employees demanding pay rises and an end to job cuts.
Mass rallies against the government were held in cities nationwide, with 30,000 marching with banners across central Paris. Francois Chereque, the leader of a union that favours a compromise, had to leave the Paris demonstration in haste after being booed.
Police intervened Tuesday evening against a group of protesters heading toward the headquarters of France's MEDEF employers' union in Paris, detaining roughly 18 youths and apparently facing no resistance, an AFP correspondent on the scene reported.
All was calm shortly after 8:30 pm local time (1930 GMT).
Rail and metro traffic was set to remain disrupted Wednesday, despite the opening of negotiations between unions, government and SNCF management. The government dropped an earlier precondition not to join the talks unless the strike was over.
Sarkozy said he understood the concerns of the striking railway-workers, but -- with conciliation talks set for Wednesday -- urged them to return to work.
"One must know how to end a strike once the time for discussion has come. Everyone must ask whether it is right to continue a strike which has already cost users -- and strikers -- so dear.
"I think of those millions of French people who after a day of work have no bus, metro or train to take them home and who are tired of being used as hostages," he said.
Noting that the proportion of strikers has shrunk to 27 percent in the state-owned SNCF rail company and 18 percent in the RATP metro operator, Sarkozy said that "a small minority should not be able to impose its law on a majority."
RATP's president Pierre Mongin said the vast majority of those still picketing -- "between 80 to 90 percent"-- were metro and RER train conductors.
Ahead of Wednesday's talks, ministers have said they will not yield on the core of the reform -- to increase contribution periods for the 500,000 beneficiaries of "special" pensions systems so that they are in line with the rest of the population. Currently they retire two and a half years earlier.
But the government has suggested salary rises and top-up pension schemes could sweeten the pill, and SNCF management has said a 90-million-euro-a-year financial package is available if strikers return to work.
Polls indicate most French people support Sarkozy's pensions reform, but are also increasingly worried over the cost of living and a majority sympathised with Tuesday's civil servants' strike.
Unions representing 5.2 million state employees -- around a quarter of the entire workforce -- also oppose plans to cut 23,000 jobs next year, half in education.
In a gesture to allay concerns over the living costs, Sarkozy said that in the coming days he will reveal "new initiatives relating to spending power, growth and employment."
Budget Minister Eric Woerth conceded that "civil servants are not well paid," but said they should accept more responsibilities, hours and the fact there will be fewer civil servants in the future.