French rail strikes raise fears over Euro 2016

31st May 2016, Comments 0 comments

France was bracing for fresh transport chaos Tuesday with railway workers striking just 11 days before Euro 2016 in a bitter labour dispute that has sparked months of protests.

The rolling train strike called by the powerful CGT union is expected to affect around half of national and regional services by the time it takes full effect on Wednesday.

That will be followed by industrial action on the Paris Metro from Thursday, with Air France pilots also voting in principle for a lengthy strike at some point in June, when Euro 2016 is in full swing.

The protests and strikes 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 stoppages and sometimes violent demonstrations against labour reforms in France, President Francois Hollande has refused to bend to the unions' demands 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The measures, which would make it easier to hire and fire employees, "will not be withdrawn", a defiant Hollande told Sud Ouest newspaper.

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

- 'In the government's hands' -

With the tournament looming, CGT boss 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."

Paris tourism chiefs expressed concerns that footage of striking demonstrators clashing with police was discouraging potential visitors to France.

The "guerilla-type" scenes "reinforce the feeling of fear and misunderstanding" among tourists still anxious after November's jihadist attacks on Paris that killed 130 people, the tourist board said on Monday.

The train strike, which starts later on Tuesday, will affect 40 percent of the high-speed TGV trains and half of suburban services in the Paris region, Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said.

Air travellers will also likely face cancellations and delays after Air France pilots voted Monday to consider strike action for at least six days in June in a separate dispute over productivity targets.

Petrol deliveries were picking up pace though, following the end of union blockades of fuel depots.

The situation had "very clearly improved", said Francis Duseux, president of the Ufip fuel industry body.

"There are no shortages on a national level, even if there are still some difficult situations in certain areas," he added, although around 20 percent of petrol stations were still short of fuel.

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 hit too -

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.

The focus of the anger in France is new legislation aimed at injecting more flexibility into the labour market by making it easier to sack employees and hire new ones.

Companies would also be able to negotiate terms and conditions with their workers rather than be bound by industry-wide agreements.

But unions say the moves will erode job security and fail 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 that 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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