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Published: Tuesday, 9/7/2010

Commuters walloped by strikes in France, London

ASSOCIATED PRESS

PARIS — Strikes hobbled public transit across France and in London on Tuesday, forcing tourists and commuters to alter their plans as they bore the brunt of a wave of discontent over government cost-cutting measures — a wave expected to soon prompt walkouts elsewhere on the continent.

French unions staged a nationwide walkout over plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, cutting service on trains, planes, buses and subways. London Underground workers unhappy about job cuts closed much of the city's subway system — the first in a series of 24-hour strikes planned for the fall.

The strikes came as European Union finance ministers met in Brussels amid worries the government debt crises that alarmed markets worldwide earlier this year could flare up again. The ministers discussed introducing a levy on banks and whether a tax on financial transactions can deal with another banking crisis.

In France, some post offices shut down, schools were hamstrung and public hospitals were hit with a nearly 18 percent staff cut for the day. At least one news radio station played music. The strike also blocked the Atlantic coast port at Saint-Nazaire, including vessels that feed into the nearby Total refinery.

Civil aviation authorities asked airlines to cancel a quarter of their flights at Paris' airports. Only two out of every five of France's famed high-speed trains ran during the strike, which began Monday evening and ends Tuesday night.

Thousands gathered in Marseille, Lyon, Paris and other cities for marches to cap the strikes. In Paris, the crowd marched to drum beats, with many carrying balloons. The Interior Ministry said that as of noon, some 450,000 people were demonstrating throughout France.

Unions hope to mobilize a total of 2 million street protesters at more than 200 demonstrations across France, at a time when French President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval ratings hover in the mid-30 percent range.

The French strike coincides with the start of debate in parliament over a plan to overhaul the money-losing pension system so it will break even in 2018. The government insists the reform is essential as people are living longer, and it has urged everyone to show “courage” as it tries to chip away at the huge national debt.

The French retirement age of 60 is already among the lowest in Europe. In contrast, neighboring Germany has decided to bump the retirement age from 65 to 67 and the U.S. Social Security system is gradually raising the retirement age to 67.

But unions say the French government is attacking one of the country's most cherished social protections.

“If we need money ... we know where to find it,” said Guy Gamet, 55-year-old representative of the Workers Force union as he marched in Lyon, in the southeast. “When it was necessary to bail out the banks not so long ago, we knew where to find the money.”

One train passenger was less enthusiastic.

“I'm just getting tired of this because this is not the first time,” said Henda Fersi at the Part-Dieu train station in Lyon. “I understand the strikers' point of view but, still, they put us in a difficult situation and we're penalized.”

The thousands of London maintenance workers, drivers and station staff who walked out say job cuts will hurt service and safety. With the underground train service shut, buses had to take on extra loads, while vehicular traffic was heavy and city sidewalks were teeming with walkers and bikers.

“The bus system has been a mess today, but I got here,” said Anita Prazmowska of South London.

The action in France and Britain appeared a precursor to more discontent elsewhere in Europe. A general strike was planned in Spain for Sept. 29 over labor market reforms, and in the Czech Republic, a massive protest against proposed austerity measures, including 10 percent salary cuts for state employees, was set for Sept. 21.

Francois Chereque, who heads the moderate CFDT union, told the RTL station that he wanted Tuesday's protests in France to “restore hope” for citizens while putting pressure on the parliamentary debate. But Labor Minister Eric Woerth has said the government will press ahead with the retirement reforms no matter how strong the protest turnout.

The French SNCF rail network said that 80 percent of Thalys trains to Belgium and the Netherlands wouldn't be affected, and Eurostar trains to Britain are expected to run normally.

Some Paris commuters had to resort to the city's rental bicycle system, Velib, and not all were happy about it. One commuter, Antonia Gilles, tried it for the first time: “It was a success but it was dangerous.”



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