Strikes cause French railhavoc, schools hit Thursday

19th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 19 (AFP) - French rail travellers endured widespread delays and cancellations Wednesday as a strike by train workers disrupted services on day two of a rolling campaign of public sector stoppages.

PARIS, Jan 19 (AFP) - French rail travellers endured widespread delays and cancellations Wednesday as a strike by train workers disrupted services on day two of a rolling campaign of public sector stoppages.

Only one in four RER suburban trains serving Paris and one in three high-speed TGV trains were operating, the state-owned SNCF said.

Regional rail service was also badly hit, but the Eurostar trains linking Paris and London were running on or close to schedule, and Thalys service to Brussels and Amsterdam was only slightly disrupted.

But the SNCF insisted that service would return to normal across the country on Thursday, with only "a few limited disruptions" early in the day "as per usual on the day after a national strike".

Some 37 percent of staff observed the strike call, management reported, considerably higher than the 22 percent who walked out in the last nationwide stoppage a year ago.

There were no scenes of chaos reported at the nation's rail stations, as passengers seemed to be well informed of the cancellations, but France's roads were jammed as many commuters unable to take the train got behind the wheel.

Unions representing some 170,000 rail workers are protesting against a 2005 budget that cuts 3,500 jobs - though the losses would come through non-replacement of retiring staff rather than redundancies.

Supported by seven of France's eight rail unions, the strike comes despite an agreement worked out last year that was supposed to limit the number and impact of disputes on the rail network.

SNCF president Louis Gallois said Wednesday that 300 new jobs would be created in the Paris area, bringing the number of jobs cut to 3,200.

Didier Le Reste of the hardline CGT union called the announcement a "first response, and a credit to the mobilisation".

Unions have coordinated a succession of stoppages this week, accusing President Jacques Chirac's centre-right government of trying to roll back the public sector with a programme of liberalisation and budget austerity.

"People have been worried and unhappy for a while. At some point, that has to be expressed," said Jean-Claude Mailly of Force Ouvriere.

"When we look at buying power, the jobs situation, the future of the public sector, we see a lot of reasons to be pessimistic," he told France 2 television.

Postal workers started the protests on Tuesday to denounce a bill to open the state-owned La Poste to outside competition in accordance with EU directives. Unions said 20 percent of staff took part, but management put the figure at just 13 percent.

On Wednesday, workers at the state power and gas utilities, Electricite de France and Gaz de France, also walked off the job in protest at a reorganisation plan which they say could mean job cuts.

On Thursday some five million civil servants are being called out to demand a pay rise, with teachers - who have a separate dispute with the government over a new education bill - expected to be in the vanguard.

Some schools could close as a result of the action.

The campaign is being seen as a key test both of government resilience and of the unions' capacity to mobilise their forces after a year of relative social calm.

A large turnout this week would give momentum to a further day of action on February 5 to protest against government moves to water down the mandatory 35-hour week by giving private sector employees the chance to work longer.

The government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin - which came to power in 2002 - has said it will not back down from its programme of gradual economic change.

The government has also made clear that workers will forego their salaries for the hours they are on strike. Until a 2003 law came into force it was the norm for public sector strikers to keep their pay.


Subject: French News

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