French rail workers take on Macron with mass strikes

2018-04-08 09:56:49
Summary:PARIS - French rail workers kicked off three months of rolling strikes on Tuesday, part of a wave of industrial action that will test President Emmanuel Macron s resolve to reshape France with reforms
Traffic is widely disrupted for 4.5m daily train passengers

PARIS - French rail workers kicked off three months of rolling strikes on Tuesday, part of a wave of industrial action that will test President Emmanuel Macron's resolve to reshape France with reforms.

The strike caused major disruption for France's 4.5 million daily train passengers and stoppages have been announced two days out of five until June 28 - unless Macron drops his bid to force a major overhaul at state rail operator SNCF.

"We have been asking for the same thing for several weeks - that the government completely reconsiders its plan," said Philippe Martinez, head of one of France's biggest unions, the CGT.

Staff at Air France, garbage collectors and some energy workers are also staging separate walkouts on Tuesday in a growing atmosphere of social strife 11 months after 40-year-old Macron came to power.

Only one in eight high-speed trains were running on what the French media dubbed "black Tuesday", with more than three quarters of train drivers on strike, according to SNCF management.

Only a fifth of regional trains were running - and as commuters took to the roads instead, the streets of Paris were snarled with 370 kilometers of jams in the morning, "exceptional for the time of day", according to traffic website Sytadin.

In the southern city of Lyon, lawyer Perrine Fontana said the rolling strikes were going to cause "huge problems" for her because she frequently travels for work.

"I can understand the railroad workers to a certain degree, but their strike challenges the personal and professional lives of many people," the 27-year-old said.

'Strike culture'

Three-quarters of Eurostar trains to London and Brussels will run and Thalys trains toward Belgium and the Netherlands will operate almost normally, but there will be none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland.

At Air France, where staff are striking for the fifth time to demand a pay rise, managers said 75 percent of flights would operate. Further walkouts are planned for April 7, 10 and 11.

Macron says the SNCF, saddled with $57.5 billion of debt, needs to make major changes as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

It is 30 percent more expensive to run a train in France than elsewhere in Europe, according to his government, which wants to strip new SNCF hires of special rail workers' status guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement.

"We need to rid this country of its strike culture," Gabriel Attal, spokesman for Macron's Republic On The Move, or LREM party, said on Monday.

Unions accuse Macron, a centrist ex-investment banker, of seeking to "destroy the public railways through pure ideological dogmatism".

They fear that plans to turn the SNCF into a state-owned company could eventually lead to the rail operator being privatized - something the government denies.

The rail strikes are being seen as the biggest challenge yet to Macron's sweeping plans to liberalize the French economy and make it more competitive.

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