French workers walk off job in strike

Trains, planes, subways and buses slowed to a fraction of regular traffic as workers across France walked off the job Tuesday in a nationwide strike against a new jobs law.

Sluggish commutes rang in the start to a day on which thousands of people were preparing to take to the streets for about 200 planned protests across France, or stay home for a one-day strike.

Other recent protests over the government's youth jobs law have turned violent, and police were stepping up surveillance on the rail network.

The strike and protests were a major test for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in a crucial week in his ongoing standoff with opponents of the so-called first job contract, his recipe to reduce sky-high youth unemployment levels in France. Many opponents fear it will damage coveted job security.

Labor and student groups vowed further strikes and protests, which have shut down many universities in recent weeks, unless the government cancels the new labor law, which is to take effect next month. The dispute could weigh on presidential elections next year.

An array of public service workers, including bus and subway drivers, air traffic controllers, utility workers and unemployment office staffers, joined Tuesday's strike.

About seven in 10 subway trains were running in Paris, but commuter trains were as few as one in two. Public transportation was disrupted in 76 cities and towns, LCI television reported.

Air France noticed spotty disruptions to flight traffic. One flight in three was canceled at airports nationwide, according to the national civil aviation authority.

Newsstands were empty of national dailies. State-run radio France-Info, a top source of daily news for the French, aired only music. France-2 television broadcast its morning show in a smaller-than-usual studio, with some technicians on strike.

Even for those who did want to get to work, commutes were troublesome.

The strike got people talking. Arguments and discussions over the contract and the walkout were common at bakeries, cafes and open-air markets across the country.

"It's really annoying," said secretary Monique Paquet, who waited with about 30 other people as a crammed bus arrived at a stop near the Opera. "I have a two-hour commute between buses and trains, and these strikes really slow me down."

Total highway bottlenecks outside Paris on Tuesday morning trailed about 128 kilometers (80 miles), about twice the average levels, the national highway information center said.

But many French people, accustomed to sporadic strikes, have learned how to prepare, by either taking vacation or comp days, using cars to get to work, or staggering their hours around peak times.

Crammed train platforms "are a thing of the past," said Jean-Paul Boulet, spokesman for the national train operator SNCF. "People get organized, or will stay home."

"Didn't you see? There's not even a cat in Paris," he added, referring to the smaller-than-normal number of workday pedestrians in the capital. The Saint-Lazare train station, favored by commuters and known as a barometer of strikes' effects, appeared calmer than normal.

The law, set to take effect next month, would let companies dismiss workers under 26 without cause in their first two years on the job. The government hopes the greater flexibility will encourage companies to hire young workers, who face a 22-percent jobless rate, reports the AP.

I.L.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team