French railway workers kick off general strike

French railway workers walked off their jobs late Wednesday to kick off a one-day general strike that will disrupt transportation and shut schools throughout the country, dpa reported.

The job action was called by most major trade unions to demand higher pay, more job security, additional state aid to small and middle-sized companies threatened by the economic crisis and a halt to parts of President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic reforms.

In addition to many of France's 5 million public sector workers, employees from a large number of private companies, such as car makers Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen and Virgin Megastores, were expected to strike on Thursday.

The head of the moderate CFDT trade union, Francois Chereque, said, "There is a real necessity for workers to say that it is unjust that they are the ones that must pay, with their salaries, their jobs, their benefits, for a crisis for which they are not responsible. This (strike) is a cry of rage."

The national rail network SNCF expects an average of one out of two scheduled high-speed TGV and regional trains to be running during the strike.

In addition, public transportation in at least 77 cities throughout France will be disrupted to varying degrees.

The greater Paris area will be particularly hard-hit, with fewer than one of two scheduled metros in the capital and about one of three trains connecting the capital with its suburbs expected to be in operation.

The French Civil Aviation Authority (DGAC) said that some 70 per cent of all domestic flights will be cancelled on Thursday, while Air France has annulled 30 per cent of its short- and medium-haul flights from Paris' Orly Airport and 10 per cent from Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Union leaders said that about 60 per cent of French primary and secondary school teachers would take part in the strike, forcing most schools to either shut their doors or offer a skeleton staff to care for the pupils, as prescribed by a new law.

Hundreds of thousands of people from all sectors are also expected to take part in protest demonstrations throughout the country.

The protests and the strikes represent an important test of strength for both union leaders and Sarkozy, and may mark the beginning of a broad protest movement against the government's policies.

Sarkozy has said that, regardless of the extent of the job action, he will persist in his reforms.

But Bernard Thibault, the head of the important CGT union, warned, "If the day of (January) 29 has the scope we expect, there will certainly be more to come."

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