- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

PARIS (AP) — Commuters crammed aboard the few trains left running, and surgeons operated on only emergency cases as strikes over job cuts and pay disrupted French rail service and hospitals yesterday.

The strikes were part of consecutive protests this week by trade unions seeking to brake reforms of France’s welfare system, public sector and labor laws pursued by President Jacques Chirac’s conservative government.

Paris’ suburban rail network was hit hard by the strike, which started Tuesday and was to last until this morning, with between 60 percent and 84 percent of trains canceled, rail operator SNCF said. Commuters were forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the few trains still in service.

Tempers sometimes flared with the push-and-shove. But strikes are a regular part of life in France, and some commuters said they could sympathize with the strikers. Unions were protesting SNCF’s budget for this year, approved yesterday, which the rail operator said includes plans to cut 3,290 posts through retirements that won’t be replaced.

“People have to defend their rights; it is normal,” said Okou Sali, waiting for a train. “But we are paying the consequences. … It is not normal to take us hostage.”

Labor leader Jean-Claude Mailly of the left-wing Workers’ Force union predicted more protests in weeks to come. He said unions were rediscovering their ability to mobilize workers after a period of relative calm that followed repeated strikes in 2003 over pension reforms.

Nationwide, just one in three high-speed TGV trains, the pride of France’s rail network, and one in four slower Corail trains were running, the SNCF said. Some regions provided buses instead.

Driving to work wasn’t much better, with 90 miles of traffic jams and slowdowns on highways around Paris, the National Center for Road Information said. Some motorists simply stayed home, the road center said.

Congestion also formed around Bordeaux in the southwest and Lyon in the southeast.

In 200 regional hospitals, surgeons demanding a 15 percent pay increase treated only emergency cases, and others in larger city hospitals were doing fewer scheduled procedures than normal, a group of five trade unions said.

Mr. Chirac’s government, trying to control its deficit in line with European Union limits, wants the French to contribute more to their health care, has trimmed state pensions and plans to reform the 35-hour workweek to allow more overtime. Such policies have riled union supporters.

The postal service said 15 percent of its workers joined a strike Tuesday to push for talks on pay, jobs and the public sector’s future, and against the closure of thousands of post offices in rural areas.

Unions also have called for strikes today by civil servants and teachers.

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