French rail workers end strikes, helping advance Sarkozy agenda
PARIS - A transport strike that has crippled France for nine days in open defiance of President Nicolas Sarkozy's overhaul agenda was in its last gasp yesterday as rail workers around the country voted to return to the job.
The collapse of the strikes a day after the start of negotiations suggested defeat for labor unions and could clear the way for the president's program to retool France.
In 42 of 45 morning meetings, rail workers voted to return to work today, a trend that continued in the afternoon, union officials said.
The development was good news for travelers who have canceled trips and invented ways to get to work. Parisians stung by a subway strike have walked or used bikes and scooters to cross town.
Prime Minister François Fillon called on rail workers to restart traffic "completely and without delay." He thanked the French for their patience and the unions for their "responsible attitude."
It could take days to return the vast rail system to full speed. Authorities indicated there would be improvements today but nothing close to full service. Pockets of resistance remained in southern France where strikers held out.
"We seem to be moving toward a total return to work by the weekend," said Didier Larrigualdie, head of the Workers' Force union at the RATP, which runs Paris's public transportation.
Julie Vion, spokeswoman for SNFC, the French national railway company, said a dynamic of returning to the job was in place.
The turnaround began Wednesday after a first round of talks with unions that are protesting Sarkozy's plans to do away with retirement privileges reserved for rail workers and several other sectors. The government contends that the change is essential to modernizing the economy and saving the pension system.
Workers were expecting generous concessions during the talks, to conclude before the end of December.
Sarkozy, elected in May, has held firm on his promise to reform France from top to bottom with economic, social, and political changes to make the country more competitive.
Political rivals fear, however, that Sarkozy will dismantle labor protections considered part of the French way of life and scrupulously watched over by unions. The change in question was a small but crucial part of the whole.
"The political gain for Sarkozy is completely clear," said sociologist Guy Groux of the Institute for Political Science in Paris.