November 21, 2007 / 2:10 AM / 12 years ago

Sabotage hits French railways

PARIS (Reuters) - Saboteurs staged a coordinated attack on France’s high-speed rail network on Wednesday, causing nationwide delays to services already hit by an eight-day transport strike, the SNCF state railways said.

Commuters crowd into the train at the Gare de l'Est metro station in Paris November 21, 2007, during a nationwide strike of French transport workers to protest against a government pensions reform. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The pre-dawn attack on signaling connections targeted the four main TGV train services out of Paris before government, management and unions resumed negotiations on ending the dispute over pension reform.

Unionists said later some progress had been made in the talks but cautioned each local committee would decide on whether to continue the strike in their daily vote as usual on Thursday.

“There have been a number of advances, of announcements,” said Didier Le Reste, head of the CGT union’s rail division. “I trust railway workers to take decisions that are appropriate.”

Only a minority of railway workers remained on strike on Wednesday, with the SNCF reporting that 77.2 percent of its staff had turned up to work against 73 percent on Tuesday. But trains, Paris underground services and buses were still hit by widespread disruption alongside the signaling problems.

The SNCF said it hoped to run two out of three high-speed TGV trains on Thursday, an increase on past days.

Unions condemned the sabotage attacks and said there was no proof any of their members had been involved.

A senior SNCF executive blamed militant strikers for the damage and President Nicolas Sarkozy called for crack police teams to be dispatched to hunt down the culprits.

“Those responsible for these acts of sabotage no doubt believed they could interrupt the negotiations and the return to work that is under way at the SNCF,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon told parliament.

“Well, I’m telling them they are very much mistaken.”

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The pensions showdown is the biggest challenge Sarkozy has faced since taking office in May and his government fears its credibility would be destroyed if it gives in to the unions.

Sarkozy said on Tuesday he would not renounce the core element of his pension reform, which entails an end to early retirement rights for transport and energy workers, but indicated he was ready to make concessions in other areas.

The head of France’s business lobby said on Wednesday the dispute was causing “incalculable” damage to the economy.

An opinion poll published in the conservative Le Figaro newspaper on Wednesday gave Sarkozy a boost, saying 68 percent of people thought the transport strike was not justified.

The last time a government tried to reform the pension privileges was in 1995, but it had to backtrack in the face of nationwide stoppages and public sympathy for the strikers.

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In a separate dispute, teachers, postal workers and civil servants returned to work after a one-day strike on Tuesday called to protest against the government’s economic program. They have promised further stoppages in the months ahead.

Tobacco shop owners also took to the street on Wednesday, protesting against a smoking ban in bars due next year and many universities were disrupted by protests over education reform.

Additional reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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