France faced days of transport chaos starting last night when railway workers were to launch an open-ended strike against plans introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy to reform their pension privileges.
The national rail network faced major disruption from 8pm yesterday. This morning the shutdown will hit most metro and suburban commuter lines into Paris.
A similar 24-hour strike on Oct. 18 was followed by a large majority of railway-workers, who have vowed this time to roll the action over to the following days if the government does not back down.
Energy workers, who also enjoy so-called "special" pension systems, also plan a strike today, while students protesting about a university reform law threatened to blockade railway stations last night.
Protest organizers said the stoppages could be extended till next Tuesday, when civil servants pick up the baton in a planned strike over job cuts.
France's 16 category-based "special" pension systems are enjoyed by railway and metro staff, workers at the GDF and EDF utilities, as well as fishermen, miners, parliamentarians and singers at the state opera.
Beneficiaries can retire two-and-a-half years earlier than most people, and their pensions are based on final salaries rather than on an average over the whole career.
Evoking social equity, Sarkozy has vowed to bring the systems in line with the rest of the nation, but unions say there has been no consultation and accuse the president of deliberately seeking a showdown.
Several commentators have compared the moment to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's confrontation with the unions in the early 1980s.
"Mrs Thatcher warned that things would be hard. Some found her reforms odious, but she had the courage to be unpopular. The question is, does Sarkozy have the same courage to be unpopular?" said Eric Brunet, author of Being Rightwing -- a French Taboo.
The last time a government tried to reform the so-called "special" pension systems was in 1995 when three weeks of strikes and rallies forced the government under newly elected president Jacques Chirac into a humiliating climbdown.
But this time ministers say the situation is different, because the climate of opinion has changed -- a majority supports the pensions reform -- and because Sarkozy clearly spelled out his intentions in his May election manifesto.
"What is at stake is people's faith in politics," French Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand said on Monday.
State-owned SNCF said that only 90 out of 700 TGV fast trains is running today, and regional services would be "very disrupted."
However, the Eurostar service to London -- which travels for the first time to the newly opened St. Pancras station today -- will not be affected, SNCF said.