PARIS (AP) – Transport workers shut down most trains Wednesday, testing the patience of Parisians forced to walk, bike or skate to work with a strike aimed at derailing President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to strip away labor protections he says hurt France’s competitiveness.

Faced with a new day of strikes Thursday and the first major challenge to his crusade to modernize France via wide reforms, Sarkozy called on unions to enter talks.

“The president of the Republic has always considered that there is more to be gained for all parties in negotiation than in conflict,” presidential spokesman David Martinon said. The strikes “must end as quickly as possible in the interest of passengers.”

Sarkozy is known as a leader in a rush to accomplish his goals – and to sweep aside obstacles. The statement by his spokesman ahead of a second day of transport chaos suggested Sarkozy does not want to take a chance on his reforms unraveling. The one in question, aimed at ending a system of special retirement benefits, is emblematic of his bid to sweep away what he sees as obsolete practices.

Both the state train authority, which began its strike Tuesday night, and the Paris transport system announced a fresh day of walkouts Thursday – despite a green light from Sarkozy to open talks while ceding nothing.

Students angry over a university reform law added a volatile element to the social turmoil in a month that promises more work stoppages on other contested reforms.

Parisians were forced to rely on their own energy, or ingenuity, to get to work Wednesday. They made full use of the city’s new rent-a-bike service, skated across town or used children’s scooters. Still others traded high heels for sensible shoes and walked.

Just 90 of 700 trains ran Wednesday. The Eurostar between Paris and London, run by a separate company, was not affected by the strike. And tempers were short on the first day.

“I support the idea of strikes, but not this strike,” said 25-year-old Xavier Michel, who skated five miles to his advertising job. This strike hurts “the little guys like us” who are “basically taken hostage.”

The government as well as the unions are seeking a compromise in the standoff over Sarkozy’s bid to pare down special pension benefits for a few privileged sectors, such as train drivers who currently retire at 50. The money saved by a reform that would affect a half-million workers is meant to spur growth and put all the French on the same footing.

Utilities workers and employees of opera houses – where curtains remained drawn Wednesday – are among those who would lose special benefits.

In a breakthrough, Sarkozy agreed to a proposal by powerful CGT union boss Bernard Thibault for company-by-company talks with a government official present.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon added a hitch, saying the heart of the reform is “not negotiable.”

In his statement, the presidential spokesman was softer, saying that “concrete proposals” from all sides “will naturally be examined.”

Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand, in a letter to seven union chiefs, said negotiations should commence “rapidly” and be completed in a month.

It was the second transport strike in less than a month, but an Oct. 18 walkout was meant as no more than a warning. The current strike calling for daily votes on whether to continue is meant to wear the government down.

A poll by the BVA firm published Wednesday suggested a wide majority of French sided with Sarkozy, with 58 percent of those questioned saying the government should not back down compared to 34 percent who disagreed. No margin of error was given for the poll of 981 people but at that size it would be plus or minus three percentage points.

Despite the backing, Sarkozy’s bid to overhaul France and make it more competitive could be an uphill battle. Civil servants plan a day of action next Tuesday and magistrates are to protest a plan to redistrict courts, eliminating dozens, at the end of the month.

On Wednesday, students blocking universities for the past week stepped up their protest, forcing 25 to close and partially blocking 10 others, including the prestigious Sorbonne, according to UNEF, the main students’ union. The Education Ministry said 11 schools were closed and several dozen subject affected by disturbances.

They added their numbers to a protest march through Paris on Wednesday.

Students opposed to the blockages were doubly punished -without transport and unable to get into class. “Not only did it take me an hour and a half to get here, I can’t get in,” Sorbonne law student Michael David said. Professors there tried to push their way through pickets.

Both the SNCF train authority and the RATP that runs Paris public transport predicted a softening of the strike action Thursday – but not enough to make a solid difference.

Many caught by the strike made the best of it.

Didier Thery of suburban Cergy-Pontoise took a vacation day and drove his wife to work in Paris, along with a colleague.

“It let me see Paris in another way,” he said, “with everyone on bicycles, men taking wives with their beautiful shoes on motorcycles.”

Said his wife, Isabelle: “We are so used to strikes, we’re well organized.”

Associated Press writers Laurent Pirot, Jean-Marie Godard, Nathalie Schuck, John Leicester and Elizabeth Ryan contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-14-07 1717EST

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