France train chaos as labour unrest spreads

1st June 2016, Comments 0 comments

Transport chaos hit France on Wednesday, just nine days before the Euro 2016 football tournament, as railway workers went on strike in the latest salvo of a months-long battle between the government and unions.

Around half of France's trains were cancelled as workers from railway operator SNCF launched their eighth strike in three months, this time saying they will continue until demands for better pay and conditions are met.

"It's a nightmare today -- even more than the other strike days," said Christine, an SNCF worker surveying the chaos at Ormesson station in the Paris suburbs, where commuters were struggling to squeeze on to one of the few trains that had shown up.

The strike has piled further pressure on the deeply unpopular Socialist government, which has been besieged by months of protests and work stoppages over a controversial labour reform bill.

Subway workers in the capital were planning to walk off the job from Thursday followed by Paris airport staff over the weekend.

Philippe Martinez, head of the powerful CGT union, said Tuesday that this week would see "the strongest mobilisation in three months" of strikes.

Adding to the chaos, one Air France pilots' union threatened to hold a two- or four-day strike from the day after Euro 2016 kicks off on June 10.

Since March, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in demonstrations that have frequently turned violent, while about a fifth of France's petrol pumps ran dry last week as CGT activists blockaded refineries and depots.

Energy group Total faces losses of "tens of millions of dollars per week" from blockades at its five refineries, according to an internal report seen by AFP.

Although most have been cleared, workers at an oil terminal in the northern port of Le Havre -- which supplies kerosene to Paris's two main airports -- extended their blockade into Wednesday.

- 'Weighing on our economy' -

Despite the disruption to their daily lives, 46 percent of French people still support the unions' calls, an opinion poll in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed Sunday.

But the protests have cast a shadow over preparations for the month-long Euro championship, which is expected to attract over a million foreign visitors and has already been dogged by security fears following last year's jihadist attacks in France.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls decried the "waste" caused by the strikes.

"This conflict is weighing on our economy at a time when the actions of the government are allowing a rebound, growth and a fall in unemployment," he told parliament.

SNCF said 17 percent of its staff were on strike Wednesday, leading to more than two-thirds of inter-city trains and nearly half of high-speed TGV services being cancelled.

International services to Britain and Germany were not due to be affected, but the majority of trains to Spain and Italy were likely to be cancelled.

- 'Shambles' -

The French government says its new labour law is aimed at reducing stubbornly high unemployment and making the struggling economy more business-friendly.

But unions are furious that the government rammed the reforms through the lower house of parliament without a vote, and have called for another national day of strikes in two weeks when the bill goes before the Senate.

They say the law favours bosses by letting them set their own working conditions for new employees, rather than being bound to industry-wide agreements, allowing companies to cut jobs during hard times and go beyond the 35-hour work week.

Despite often violent demonstrations, President Francois Hollande has refused to scrap the legislation and has criticised the unions for tarnishing France's image.

"The image of a paralysed country conforms to the worst French-bashing cliches," a Socialist party spokesman said.

Opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy has slammed the government's handling of the crisis, describing it as a "shambles" and warning of "anarchy" on the streets of France.

"Weakness, cowardice, a total loss of authority: this is the spectacle we are witnessing," the former president told magazine Valeurs Actuelles.

"The bill is far too weak to solve the problems, but stinging enough to arouse the passions of the left. The government has proven its weakness faced with the protests."

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© 2016 AFP

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