French Unions Halt Transport Strikes

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Claude Paris / AP

Striking transport workers in Paris voted to return to work.

Moving around France just got a whole lot easier. But amid relief over union decisions to suspend the nine-day transport strike that had brought the nation to a crawl, weary commuters are wondering whether the return to normal will last.

Union members at rail company SNCF on the Paris Metro system voted to suspend their walk-outs Thursday evening, and to allow their representatives to negotiate with employers and government representatives over planned pension reforms that sparked the protests. But if negotiators can't find a resolution by the unions' mid-December deadline, the strikes could resume. Indeed, with around 20% of regional union bodies having voted to maintain the strike Thursday, labor leaders favoring a return to work sought to placate that minority-and send a warning to the government-by stressing only the nature of their opposition had changed, not the goal of what they call fending off an unfair reform.

French Prime Minister François Fillon hailed "the responsible attitude of labor organizations" in halting the strikes. No doubt aware that the government enjoys large public support in its efforts to extend time required for public employees to qualify for full pensions, Fillon saved his greatest praise for the millions left stranded by the transport strikes. It was those people, Fillon noted, who "were unjustly penalized by these strikes." Citing the determination and "incredible efforts made to get to work" by the millions of commuters victimized in the conflict, Fillon promised them "you'd better believe it was that France that the government has heard" as it heads into negotiations.

It was also that France that had an uncharacteristically light step and slight smile on its face as it set off to train stations and Metros Friday morning. Though return of full service was not expected before the weekend, the SNCF reported around 70% of national rail and suburban Paris commuter traffic running Friday, while the Paris Metro was operating close to normal. One result was an abundance of Paris' municipal rental bikes free at stands for the first time in nearly two weeks-a sign of commuting normality that will please hospital workers, who reported a 250% rise in bicycle accidents injuries since the strikes began.

But the resumption of rail service doesn't bring an end to the dispute-and labor, management, and government are already eyeing the December deadlines. Union officials say they were sufficiently encouraged by compromises proposed during talks since Wednesday to continue discussions without having on-going strikes as a negotiating tool. Meanwhile, the government has given state-owned companies involved a green light to offer salary, benefits and other compensations to offset the extended service requirements involved in the reform.

Initial government estimations indicate the nine-day strike cost the French economy $4.4 billion to $6 billion-with over $300 million lost each day at the SNCF alone. But President Nicolas Sarkozy is likely more concerned with overcoming resistance to his reform than the strike's shorter-term financial cost. Even now, Sarkozy may come out looking good if a compromise is found. Early estimates of what unions are likely to demand to accept the pension reform put the cost of probable annual compensation at $119 million-well below the $745 million every year the retirement scheme will cost the state if left unaltered.