France’s high-speed train network, crippled by eight days of strikes, fell victim to dangerous sabotage Wednesday just as long-awaited talks got started and rail workers in town after town voted to return to the job.
The majority of train drivers remained on strike, however, meaning a ninth day of hard traveling was in store for anyone planning a train trip Thursday. There were slight improvements to the Paris subway system, but not enough to avoid long delays.
The announcement by the SNCF train authority that cables had been set afire and the signal system tampered with on high-speed lines east, west, north and south of Paris in a “coordinated action of sabotage” drew a raft of condemnation. The vandalism further delayed trains that were running up to three hours behind schedule.
“When the line has been crossed, it must be denounced,” said President Nicolas Sarkozy, who ordered officials to “energetically” seek out the culprits.
Sarkozy’s plan to end special retirement benefits for rail and several other categories of workers triggered the transit strikes. Under the reform, all workers will have to work for 40 years to qualify for full pensions compared to 37.5 years now.
Sarkozy emerged from a long, uncharacteristic silence Tuesday to speak out against the strikes for holding transport users “hostage” and made clear he would not back down on the retirement reforms — an opening salvo in his broader program of economic, political and social change.
French public disapproves of walkout
The president, a conservative who took office in May, appears to have the upper hand in the transport standoff, his first major tangle with France’s powerful unions. Opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority of the French public disapproves of the walkouts.
However, Sarkozy has faced opposition this month from numerous quarters.
A day after many of the nation’s civil servants held a one-day walkout, they demanded on Wednesday the opening of talks on pay hikes before Nov. 30, threatening to increase their movement if they are not heard, the chief of a union federation, Gerard Aschieri, said.
Students angry over a law reforming French universities to make them more competitive were to march in Paris on Thursday.
Until now, it is the costly rail strikes hobbling France that have captured the government’s attention.
SNCF official Mireille Faugere said electric cables running beneath high-speed train tracks had been set afire and then reburied, making it harder to find and fix trouble spots. Vandals also stuck burning rags into railway signal boxes, she said.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon condemned the vandals. “Those responsible for these acts of sabotage undoubtedly thought they’d be able to interrupt the negotiations. They were very mistaken,” he told lawmakers in the lower chamber of parliament.
Unions denied any role in the sabotage. The boss of the CGT union, Bernard Thibault, questioned whether the attack was not a “provocation, a manipulation” to pull talks away from the “heart of the conflict, the future of retirement benefits.”
Little progress in talks
The first round of separate talks with the SNCF, which oversees the national rail system, and RATP, the Paris region public transport system, went ahead but bore little fruit.
Meeting union demands, the government agreed to send a representative to the talks between the unions and the companies.
Progress on the first day was limited to hammering out a calendar and a list of subjects to be covered in future meetings, union leaders said. The next meeting was set for Monday at RATP. The government has put a one-month deadline on the talks.
SNCF said nearly 80 percent of its workers were back on the job Wednesday. On the first full day of the walkout, just 39 percent of rail employees showed up for work.
Officials said many of those still on strike were train drivers. Still, rail traffic has picked up, with 400 out of the 700 regularly scheduled fast trains running Wednesday, SNCF said.
Striking rail workers in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille did not wait until the end of the first round of talks, voting Wednesday to extend the strike at least through Thursday, the CGT-Cheminot union said.
However, workers decided to return to the job in more than a dozen other towns, the CGT union said.
“There are some rail workers who feel you should suspend the movement rather than get used up during a month of negotiations,” said Bernard Guidon, federal secretary of CGT-Cheminot.