France’s train traffic ground to a halt Nov. 13 as transport workers launched open-ended strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s regressive “reform program.”

Trade union leaders warned that the walkout, which has been sparked by Sarkozy’s plans to roll back the pension rights of train drivers and other public-sector workers, could last for days or weeks.

France’s national SNCF train company predicted major interruptions in fast train line service and the Paris public transit authority expected just 1 in 10 buses and Metro trains to be running on Nov. 14.

At present, train drivers and some other public sector workers can retire on a full pension after working for 37.5 years. But Sarkozy argues that all employees should have to work for 40 years to get a full pension.

Angry train drivers point out that they entered their difficult profession on the promise of early pensions.

Teachers and doctors are also gearing up for action to defend quality state health care and education, which are at risk from job cuts.

And students fear that the creeping commercialization of universities will shut out the poor, while judges are organizing against cost-cutting plans.

Students wielding metal bars kept administrators from entering buildings on Nov. 13 at a university in the city of Rennes, where protests suspended classes. Scattered demonstrations have also been reported at other universities.

Students are up in arms over a new law that aims to open up France’s public universities to private investment.

Despite the mounting social unrest, Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand said that it was “unthinkable” that the government would back down from its “modernizing” agenda.

Analysts at the pro-EU think tank the Centre for European Reform argue that “these particular reforms are key.”

Think-tank spokesman Philip Whyte warned that President Sarkozy’s “big bang” approach to “reform” could end up “undermining the reform process.”

“There is a danger that Mr. Sarkozy is creating too many enemies at once,” Whyte observed.

— Morning Star, U.K. (