French rail strikes raise fears for Euro 2016

31st May 2016, Comments 0 comments

French railway workers began a rolling strike Tuesday just 10 days before the Euro 2016 football tournament begins, aggravating a bitter labour dispute that has sparked months of sometimes violent protests.

The strike affected a small number of services as it got underway on Tuesday evening, but is expected to hit around half of national and regional services by the time it takes full effect on Wednesday.

While services to Britain and Germany will operate as normal, only a fraction of services to Italy and Spain will be maintained, national railway operator SNCF said.

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

Paris metro workers are also planning to walk off the job from Thursday and Air France pilots have also threatened a lengthy strike in the coming weeks, when Euro 2016 is in full swing.

The protests have cast a shadow over the football championships, which begin on June 10 and are expected to attract millions of foreign visitors.

Neighbouring Belgium also faced growing disruption from a public sector workers' strike on Tuesday, with train services badly hit and uncollected rubbish piling up in Brussels.

Despite three months of protests and violent demonstrations against his government's attempts to reform France's rigid labour laws, President Francois Hollande has refused to bend to the demands of hardline unions to scrap the legislation.

The measures, which would make it easier to hire and fire employees, "will not be withdrawn", a defiant Hollande told Sud Ouest newspaper.

Companies would also be able to negotiate changes to working hours directly with staff, rather than be bound by industry-wide agreements.

"The text assures the best performance for businesses and offers new rights to employees," Hollande said.

"I consider it necessary to see it through to its conclusion."

Despite the expected transport chaos, the biggest threat to Euro 2016 "remains terrorism", Hollande said.

Underlining the point, some 500 police and rescue workers staged a mock terror attack on Tuesday outside the Stade de France national stadium in Paris, where the opening match and final will be played.

- 'In the government's hands' -

With the tournament looming, the head of the powerful, hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said the situation was in the government's hands.

"We're not going to stop people going to see the football matches, but the government has to be prepared to discuss. Everything is in its hands."

But the ruling Socialists hit back, saying the CGT was embarrassing the country.

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

Paris tourism chiefs agree, fearing that footage of tear gas and clashes between demonstrators and police will hit visitor numbers, which are already sharply down in the wake of last year's jihadist attacks.

Meanwhile the CGT's Martinez said the union would take legal action against the head of the MEDEF employers' federation for defamation after he accused the unions on Monday of behaving like "terrorists".

Martinez said Pierre Gattaz's accusation amounted to a "call for insurrection, or at the very least violence against the CGT".

- Belgium strikes over austerity -

Belgium was severely disrupted on Tuesday after staff at schools, city transport networks, airports and government offices downed tools in protest at the centre-right government's austerity plans, including raising the retirement age.

Train services were badly hit in the south of the country while less than half were operating in Flanders in the north, the SNCB rail operator said. High-speed trains to Germany were halted and services to France were also reduced.

In France unions say the government's moves will erode job security while failing to bring down unemployment, which is stuck at around 10 percent.

Unions are furious that the government rammed the reforms through the lower house of parliament without a vote. They have called for another national day of rallies and strikes on June 14, the day the Senate begins examining the law.

Hollande is considering seeking a second term in next year's presidential elections despite polls showing he is one of France's most unpopular leaders since World War II.

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© 2016 AFP

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