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French public transport strike draws to a close

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A transport strike that crippled the French rail network for nine days has petered out after workers voted to give talks on pension reform a chance.

The number of trains on the national rail system and the Paris underground approached near-normal levels for the first time since the dispute started on November 13, although a full service was not expected until the weekend.

Allies of President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the end of the stoppages as a success for him and his government, but hardline unions said they would strike again in December if they failed to win satisfaction in the negotiations.

However, the fact that unions have agreed to discuss ending special pension privileges in the transport and energy sectors was a first, and stood in stark contrast to 1995 when a previous reform was withdrawn following a massive strike.

Mr Sarkozy has kept an uncharacteristically low profile during the standoff, and conservatives said he handled the issue deftly. "The success of the Sarkozy method," right-wing daily Le Figaro, which backs the president, said in a headline.

Even former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a critic of Mr Sarkozy's despite being a fellow conservative, praised the head of state, who has staked his reputation on the reform.

"The expressed concern of not politicising, not seeking to ensure that there is a winner and a loser, is the right strategy in social matters," Mr Villepin told France 2 television.

Concessions on the way

Mr Sarkozy has refused to back down on the main element of his reform - ending early retirement rights for most workers and index-linking their pensions to inflation rather than salaries.

However, he has indicated he is ready to make concessions on other areas, such as pay, and the French media have reported that an eventual deal might cost the SNCF railways alone 100 million euros ($A169 million) a year in salary hikes and perks.

The SNCF said it expected high-speed TGV rail links between Paris and other cities to run normally on Friday, while two out of three regional train services would be operating.

The Paris transport RATP network said 80 percent of its buses and trams were running, a marked improvement on recent days, and 11 out of 14 metro lines were functioning normally. © 2007 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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