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French Rail Workers Voting to Return to Work

Initial votes by striking French rail workers on Thursday suggested a large majority were returning to work after a nine-day walkout against President Nicolas Sarkozy's retirement reforms that crippled transport networks.

Votes to end the strike were returned in 42 of 45 meetings by rail workers around the country, the SNCF rail authority said. Dozens more meetings were being held throughout the day.

Initial figures indicated the strike was coming to an end after negotiations opened Wednesday.

"We think a dynamic of return to work has begun," SNCF spokeswoman Julie Vion said.

Trains were still crammed with commuters Thursday morning.

Wednesday's talks produced no immediate solutions to the standoff, seen as a crucial test of Sarkozy's greater plans for changing France. But the mere fact that negotiations started was seen as a step forward.

Amid widespread passenger discontent with the strikes, several groups of workers of the SNCF and Paris public transit authority RATP had already voted Wednesday to return to work. Scores more were voting Thursday on whether to end the strike.

On Thursday, about 540 of the usual 700 high-speed TGV trains were running nationwide, the SNCF said. That was the best level of TGV service since the strike began.

But getting around Paris remained a challenge, with at least one commuter train line shut entirely and traffic at a near standstill on a few subway lines, the RATP said. Some 60 percent of Paris buses were running.

Road traffic was improving, with about 450 kilometers (280 miles) of traffic jams noted at 9 a.m. (0800GMT), which traffic authorities said was near normal levels.

The transport strikes were triggered by Sarkozy's plan to reform special retirement benefits for certain public sector workers. Under the reform, all workers will have to work for 40 years to qualify for full pensions compared to 37.5 years now.

The clash with unions over this reform is a symbolic first battle in Sarkozy's broader program of economic and social change, which has prompted resistance in several sectors. Sarkozy said Tuesday he would not back down on the reforms, and opinion polls suggest most French disapprove of the walkouts.

At Wednesday's talks between rail unions and management, they agreed on a schedule for negotiations and a list of subjects to be covered in future meetings, union leaders said. The next meeting was set for Monday. The government has put a one-month deadline on the talks.

University students remained mobilized against Sarkozy's reforms, and planned protests at campuses nationwide, including a march starting at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. They are protesting a law passed earlier this year allowing universities more freedom to attract private funding and raise tuition.