Fri, Nov 23, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Arsonists target high-speed rail during French strike

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PARIS

As a national transit strike stretched into its second week, arsonists disrupted high-speed train services on four main routes on Wednesday. Government officials called the fires a "coordinated act of sabotage."

The early morning outbreak of fires on the electrical lines supplying the TGV high-speed trains happened hours before talks between transit union and government officials. The negotiators met for more than four hours and agreed to continue on Monday, while strike-weary travelers endured the eighth day of a walkout with no end in sight.

The fires raised the question of whether the striking unions were losing control of their most militant members. Top union officials condemned the attacks and insisted that there was no proof of union involvement.

Bernard Thibault, the secretary-general of the Confederation Generale du Travail, a powerful union, said such attacks during a strike were "certainly designed to bring discredit to the profession."

Government officials also condemned the fires. They stopped short of blaming the unions.

State-owned rail operator SNCF said the fires were ignited between 6:10am and 6:30am on routes linking Paris with eastern France, the western Atlantic coast, the north and the southeast. SNCF officials also reported vandalism to rail signal systems, including burning rags stuffed in signal boxes.

Some SNCF workers, who operate other long-distance and regional lines as well as the high-speed lines, voted on Wednesday in several big cities to suspend the strike.

Workers in Normandy and Nantes, however, vowed to go on.

On Tuesday, Francois Chereque, the secretary-general of another major union, the CFDT, was forced to flee a rally after upset members surrounded him to protest the union's support of negotiations.

Railway officials said the number of strikers was falling: about one in five workers was absent on Wednesday, they said, compared with about three in five when the strike started last week.

But the reality of the French train network is that a minority of workers can disrupt most services.

By afternoon, the SNCF was predicting more limited transportation services yesterday, though with signs of improvement.

It said two-thirds of the high-speed trains and three-fourths of Metro and suburban trains would be running.

The Montparnasse train station in Paris was the scene of another protest on Wednesday, with thousands of tobacco sellers marching toward the National Assembly to demand a softening of anti-smoking measures scheduled to take effect in January.

Strikes and walkouts -- by firemen, teachers, weather service employees, stagehands and others -- are taking a toll.

Patrice Crueize, the owner of L'Entracte, a bar and restaurant near the Opera Garnier in Paris, was infuriated.

"We've lost something like 40 to 50 percent of our sales since the beginning of the strikes," he said. "People don't take time to drink or to eat anymore."

The Gymnase Theater in Paris also has been hard hit.

A one-man show with Francois Pirette opened there Oct. 3, but he has been repeatedly absent.

"It's the fifth time he cancels his show due to the strikes," said Jean-Pierre Gautier, one of the theater's directors. "He lives in western France."

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