Image: Paris train station
Jacques Brinon  /  AP
Subway users wait for a train in Paris on Friday. Train, subway and bus travel around France remained a tangle as Paris transit workers continued their walkoutover President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic reforms.
updated 10/19/2007 11:40:45 PM ET 2007-10-20T03:40:45

Support for striking transport workers faltered Friday, with some unions returning to work on the second day of a protest against government plans to scrap some retirement benefits and commuters grumbling about delays and crowded platforms.

More trains, buses and subways were running Friday than on the first strike day, and polls indicated only limited public support for the strikes.

The country’s biggest strikes in 12 years have sent their message — that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to trim coveted worker protections in France’s economy will not be easy.

But unity among organized labor’s ranks splintered, with several unions putting off a decision about whether to press on with wide-scale walkouts until next week. Authorities said Paris bus service and train traffic across France would be virtually back to normal Saturday.

The labor dispute centers on Sarkozy’s plans to scrap retirement privileges for workers in physically demanding jobs, such as miners and train drivers, but also for workers at the state bank and national opera house. They are able to retire earlier — and on more generous terms — than the vast majority of France’s working population.

The government says the privileges cost too much and are unfair; workers fearing unemployment lines resist any erosion of the labor protections that have long underpinned France’s economy.

The reform is one piece of Sarkozy’s broader plans to change the way the French work, and one that enjoys support from most voters. Others, such as changes to hospital staffing and public sector job cuts, are more sensitive.

“The government’s strategy is both firm about the goal of reforming special regimes, and open — with a hand extended — to dialogue with electricians, gas industry workers, railway workers and public transport workers,” Sarkozy said.

“I’m committed to this reform, and we’ll do it,” he told reporters in Lisbon, Portugal, at the end of a two-day European Union summit.

Advocates: Strike sends message
For strike opponents, those pension protections are outdated in a world of globalized competition. Advocates say the strike is a crucial message to defend public services from Sarkozy’s planned cost-cutting.

Commuters got around in Paris by the city’s new rent-a-bike system, roller-blades, motorcycle taxis or by borrowing their children’s scooters. Those who gambled on the threadbare public transport grumbled about missing appointments.

“Is it worth it to hold us all hostage like this?” said Jessica Devriendt, a 19-year-old photography students, asked while waiting for a subway near the Champs-Elysees. “This strike is making me miss my classes.”

But with the weekend looming, the movement could lose steam. Many French and visitors were turning their attention to France’s Rugby World Cup match against Argentina on Friday and the Saturday final between South Africa and England — both near Paris.

“There’s the World Cup final, and they have to strike — it’s bad for the country and its image,” said England fan Alex Turner, in a subway station.

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