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Wed, May 14, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Transport stoppage slows down France

AP , PARIS

A man crosses a Paris avenue on his skateboard yesterday as transport workers went on strike across the country.

PHOTO: AP

Parisians biked, walked, skated and rode scooters to work on yesterday as transport workers went on strike across the country. Minimal service by air traffic controllers and trains forced numerous travelers to cancel trips.

The strike was aimed at forcing the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to take a new look at its plans to reform the retirement system, which risks future collapse if adjustments are not made now.

However, Raffarin has said the strikes would not sway his determination, and government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said yesterday the walkouts provided an occasion for officials to further explain the pension reform.

"Explain .... It's the key word for us in government on this day," Cope said. "If we don't carry out this reform, the system will collapse."

The daylong strike was not limited to the transport sector. Teachers, post office workers, and employees of some private sector com-panies also walked off the job. With no delivery service, newspapers, too, fell victim to the "day of action."

Scores of French cities were hobbled by the strike, and more than 100 demonstrations were planned throughout the country, according to France-Info radio.

In Paris, demonstrators marched across the city from the Place de la Republique to the Left Bank square Denfert-Rochereau.

Metro and bus service was severely hobbled from Bordeaux in the southwest to Strasbourg in the eastern Alsace region.

In Paris, where urban transport was severely disrupted, bicycle riders, skaters and people on scooters, or on foot, took to the streets.

One in three TGV fast trains was running, but numerous destinations went without service, France-Info said. The Eurostar train service to London, however, was reported running normally.

Air France said over the weekend that it would be forced to cut short and medium-haul flights by 65 percent yesterday. Its long-haul flights were to run normally.

With only minimal service at control towers, other airlines made deep cuts in their service.

Raffarin has stood firm on his pension reform plans, saying a bill would go to parliament before summer vacation at the start of July.

He has said he would not be intimated by demonstrations or strikes. However, the government plans to take up new talks on the reform package with various sectors starting today.

Among other things, Raffarin has proposed lengthening time employees must contribute to the pension system, including civil servants who normally have special privileges.

Under the proposed changes, their contribution is to be extended progressively from 37.5 years to 40 years.

An effort to revamp the retirement system in 1995 triggered a wave of strikes that lasted some three weeks.

Civil Service Minister Jean-Paul Delevoyet told France-2 television yesterday hat he does not foresee a repeat of that scenario: "Today, no one contests the need for reform."

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