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Strike teachers drop exam boycott

Unions have staged a series of protests at pension reform plans.
Unions have staged a series of protests at pension reform plans.

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PARIS, France -- Teachers in France have backed down from a threat to boycott important school examinations as the strike over pension reform continued to hit the country hard.

Following late-night negotiations with the government four unions said they would not prevent exams scheduled to start on Thursday, Gerard Aschieri, secretary-general of the majority FSU teachers' union, told The Associated Press.

French President Jacques Chirac issued a statement on Wednesday urging teachers to "let responsibility prevail" and not to punish students in their pursuit of a better pension package.

Earlier, striking workers brought several lines on the Paris Metro and the capital's bus system to a standstill while half of the underground system and many buses in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille were also hit.

The situation seemed likely to worsen later in the week after four main unions issued a joint communique calling for more mass protests.

The unions challenged the centre-right government to hold negotiations on its pension reform plans, which Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin introduced in parliament on Tuesday after months of preparations.

Nonetheless, air traffic was running almost normally Wednesday, airport officials told Reuters. The national railway SNCF said most TGV high-speed trains were operating while two out of three local trains were in service.

The unrest has become a serious threat to Raffarin's year-old government. Mass strikes in 1995 thwarted the last conservative government's attempt to touch pensions and ultimately led to its fall from power in 1997.

Unions are seething over Raffarin's plans to make people pay into the pension system for longer to counter a funding crunch as the postwar "baby boom" generation retires.

"With the demographic changes, there are fewer and fewer paying into the system and more and more taking money out of it. This is a necessary reform and everybody knows it," Raffarin told parliament on Tuesday.

Tuesday's public sector strikes slashed train services and caused huge traffic jams across France.

About 40 cities were affected by the strike action, including Marseille and Bordeaux, where garbage piled up as refuse workers were in their eighth day of strikes.

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