On Tuesday, Sarkozy accepted a negotiating plan put forward by Bernard Thibault, the head of the CGT union, known as France's most powerful workers' union.
 

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"Bernard Thibault has made it possible to untangle this crisis as of the first day of the conflict," Claude Gueant, a senior aide to Sarkozy said.

   

Thibault said he would accept company-by-company negotiations with management and government representatives, backing down from his earlier demand for national talks.

   

Other union leaders, who met on Wednesday with Xavier Bertrand, France's labour minister, were also ready for talks.

   

"Even the CGT seems ready to negotiate, let's not waste any time, this morning if possible, let's negotiate," Jacques Voisin, head of the CFTC union, said after meeting Bertrand.

    

The strikes are also being seen as a test of union strength.

 

Only around 8 per cent of workers belong to a union and membership has fallen in recent years so they do not want to alienate members who do not benefit from the special pensions. 

 

Raging disputes

 

The streets of Paris were heaving with mopeds, bikes, cars and pedestrians from before dawn as people had to do without France's metro and bus system.

 

Only a handful of trains were scheduled to run on Wednesday, while Paris's transport system operated reduced services.  

       

The strike is the biggest in France for a decade and represents Sarkozy's most serious challenge to date since he became president six months ago.
 
Transport unions have been angered by Sarkozy's proposals to scrap early retirement for some public sector workers.
 
Strikes are also being held by other public sector workers, including employees at state energy companies and theatre workers, as well as the main student body, the UNEF.
 
Opinion polls suggest a majority of French people support the government's drive to change the so-called "special pension regimes" which allow some workers to retire at 50.
 
But other disputes are brewing and public discontent growing amid increases in the cost of living and rising petrol and housing prices.