PARIS French commuters dusted off old bikes and aired their walking shoes on Tuesday in anticipation of a transport strike that is set to last for days and could become the biggest the country has seen in more than 10 years.
With several hours left before public transport workers launched their protest, President Nicolas Sarkozy, his reputation as a tough-minded reformer at stake, again pledged no-retreat from his plan to level their special pension rights to that of the rest of France.
"I will pursue these reforms to the end," he told the European Parliament. "Nothing will blow me off course."
National rail and Paris public transport workers begin their rolling walkout on Tuesday evening in protest against Sarkozy's plan, a key item in his economic reform program.
With other powerful groups including civil servants, energy workers and students due to hold their own protests against various reforms in the next week, Sarkozy faces the first major test of his presidency.
Opinion polls indicate most French people back Sarkozy.
"Victory or the end of Sarkozyism. It is in those terms, with great risks for itself, that the ruling power describes the first large social conflict facing it," the left-wing, generally anti-Sarkozy, newspaper Liberation said in an analysis.
State rail operator SNCF said it expected only 90 out of 700 high-speed intercity services to run during the strike, while one-tenth the normal number of buses and metro trains were due to be running in Paris on Wednesday.
Sarkozy has repeatedly said the door remains open to talks, and Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand was due meet a delegation from the influential CGT trade union at 10:15 a.m. EST, less than four hours before the first transport workers go on strike.
"WHIFF OF 1995"
Transport workers say their working conditions may not be as difficult as when their pension privileges, or "special regimes" were devised more than half a century ago, but they still face awkward working hours that justify their status.
The government says such schemes are outdated and costly, and it will have to pump 5 billion euros ($7.3 billion) into the special pension funds this year alone to balance their accounts.
"If this reform isn't done today, no one can guarantee them that in 10 or 15 years time their pensions can still be paid," Bertrand told France 2 television.
Introduced after World War Two for workers in especially arduous jobs, the special regimes allow some workers to retire after paying pension contributions for 37.5 years rather than the 40 years demanded of other workers.
Some observers say the walk-out could last until at least November 20 -- when civil servants and teachers launch a one-day strike against plans to cut 23,000 public sector jobs next year.
Students, who are blockading buildings at around a dozen campuses across the country over a reform that has given greater autonomy to universities, are due to protest on the same day.
The prospect of such massive protests has prompted some commentators to draw parallels with the biggest transport strike in recent memory -- a crippling walkout of 1995 that forced the government to scrap plans to reform the special regimes.
French daily Le Parisen quoted the head of the Communist Revolutionary League, Olivier Besancenot, as saying there was "a whiff of 1995" in the air, but SNCF management disagreed.
"The situation is completely different (to 1995), this reform was prepared on the political and technical level," SNCF chief Anne-Marie Idrac told RTL radio.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Jon Boyle, Swaha Pattanaik and Gwenaelle Barzic; Editing by Richard Balmforth)