France's transport strike eased but did not end Thursday, after President Nicolas Sarkozy accepted negotiations while refusing to budge on his campaign-trail promise that cushy retirement benefits must go.
Frustrated commuters, many of whom had to walk, pedal or rollerblade to work, urged Sarkozy to hang tough, saying France needs economic reforms to thrive.
Rail and transport workers' unions vowed to press the walkout into a fourth day Friday, as the government sought to trumpet figures showing that support was fading.
"Today, there are twice as many buses as yesterday, twice as many trains as yesterday, more subways than yesterday," said Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand at the Senate. "Still, there are millions of French who don't have public transport that they're accustomed to."
In a possible new source of tension, Bertrand said the government would not lead any talks until the strike ends — not before, as unions want.
"There needs to be a call to return to work," he told France-3 TV.
20 percent of subways running
Paris streets became a tangled network of bottlenecks in the Thursday evening commute home. Some motorcyclists rode on sidewalks to evade the traffic jams, while some drivers became enraged and blew horns over the slow pace. The roundabout at the famed Arc de Triomphe was at a standstill at one point.
The national rail authority said 150 high-speed trains out of 700 were running Thursday, compared with 90 on Wednesday. Paris' transport authority said only about 20 percent of subways were running — operated by the few drivers who didn't abide by the walkout call.
Tourists complained their hopes for a fun-filled Paris getaway had soured. Business owners grumbled about lost business. "There are no people, there's no one," deli owner Rene Faucheux said. "The people consume less, they're in a hurry to arrive, and a hurry to leave. The result is zero."
The national rail operator said slightly more than three in five train drivers went to work Thursday, up from two in five as the strike moved into full swing Wednesday. The Paris transport authority said about one in four of its workers were striking, down from about half a day earlier.
Union leaders were holding firm.
"I haven't had word from a single (union) that would have decided to end this movement," Jean-Maurice Couderc, a top official for the UNSA rail workers union, told The Associated Press.
Separate student action
Student protests continued over a planned university reform, which would allow state-funded schools to receive some private funding. A leading student union, UNEF, said classes at nearly half of France's 85 universities were at least partially disrupted Thursday.
Next week, many student unions plan to join hospital workers and school administrators in strikes over Sarkozy's plan to thin the public sector.
With Sarkozy in power for just six months, the strikes represent the first major union challenge to his plans to modernize France. The possible peril to him is that the discontent over his broad reform plans — designed to make France more competitive in a globalized economy — could spiral into other areas.
He agreed to an offer by the powerful CGT union for government-sponsored talks between unions and managers. But while he said Wednesday he wanted the strikes to end quickly, he has refused to yield on the crux of his reform: Requiring every one to work 40 years to receive full retirement benefits, instead of the 37.5 years currently worked by privileged sectors — notably transport and utilities.