Striking transport workers slowed France to a crawl yesterday morning as unions and the government dug in for a pivotal standoff over French President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to strip away labor protections he says are hobbling growth.
Railroads around the country stood empty after workers for the SNCF rail authority launched an open-ended strike on Tuesday night. Paris transit workers joined yesterday morning in the strike against plans to extend their retirement age.
Paper signs reading "No Service" dangled at subway stations and bus and tram stops citywide. The highway circling the city was at a standstill well before dawn. Many commuters walked, biked or rode scooters to work.
Gas and electricity workers went on strike yesterday, too, threatening targeted blackouts to illustrate their grievances over the retirement reform. University students and other workers are also putting pressure on Sarkozy's government as it plans a volley of reforms aimed at trimming bureaucracy and cutting costs to make France more competitive.
Unlike the scattered strikes that have long marked France, this labor action will likely be decisive.
Sarkozy has led the reform push personally and has put his credentials as a reformer on the line. If he triumphs, the long-powerful trade unions may be forever scarred.
Opinion polls suggest Sarkozy has the public on his side this time, as most agree with his arguments that the retirement rules are outdated, unfair and too costly.
The head of one of the toughest unions, CGT-Cheminots, dismissed any mention of concessions.
"The ball is in the government's camp," its general secretary Didier le Reste said on Canal-Plus TV.
Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand was meeting with unions yesterday.
Sarkozy, meanwhile, stressed "his determination to carry out this reform," his spokesman David Martinon said on Tuesday night.
The SNCF rail network said only 15 percent to 20 percent of trains on major lines would run during the strike, and warned that traffic would likely be disrupted through the weekend.
Paris' public transit authority RATP said there would be almost no trains on most subway routes starting yesterday. One line -- the north-south line 14 -- ran normally because it is automated.
Other Parisians shared cars, stayed home or rented one of the more than 10,000 bikes recently installed around the capital.
Electricity workers said they would cut power at local offices of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, and they also planned "Robin Hood" operations -- restoring power to households that cannot afford their electricity bills.