French transport workers strike against Sarkozy's pension reforms

French railway and public transport workers stayed away from their jobs in large numbers on Thursday to protest against French president Nicolas Sarkozy's planned pension reforms, reported dpa.

Only about one of two scheduled trains were running nationwide, with two of three high-speed TGV's operating as scheduled, the national rail service SCNF said.

In addition, public transportation in France's second-largest city, Marseille, was badly disrupted, with one of three buses and one of two metro lines operating.

The strike also affected public transportation in Lyon and Strasbourg, but trains and busses were running normally in Paris.

Some airports were experiencing delays and cancelled flights because of the strike, but the French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC) said that traffic was close to normal at Paris's two major airports.

The strike was called to protest the government's plans to increase the period of pension contributions of employees expecting to be paid full pensions from 40 to 41 years.

Demonstrations were expected to be held in more than 80 cities and towns throughout France Thursday, with the largest protest march planned for Paris.

"You will see... that we will have confirmation, notably by the size of the demonstrations, that the government must alter its plans," the head of the CGT trade union, Bernard Thibault, told France 2 television on Thursday.

"Our aim is to have the maximum number of workers express their disapproval," he added. "The aim is not to have everyone on strike today."

However, it is unlikely that the government will budge in its determination to cut the state's budget deficit.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon told France 2 television late Wednesday that he would be "very attentive" to what occurs on Thursday, but that "the issue was decided in 2003 and that the increase to 41 years (of pension contributions) was established by an agreement."

But because Sarkozy and his government plan to carry out more wide-ranging reforms later this year, they may be forced to negotiate some form of compensation to get the agreement of the unions on the issue, much as they did in eliminating the special pension rights of certain public-sector workers late last year.

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