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Rail strike cripples Paris

Published on 21/01/2004

PARIS, Jan 21 (AFP) - Paris commuters bore the brunt of a national rail strike over pay and jobs Wednesday, as unions threatened a wider conflict if the government presses ahead with plans to enforce a guaranteed mimimum service during future transport disputes.

Only around one in five regional services into the French capital were running, and morning travellers had to face long delays and over-crowded carriages. Officials at the main stations were issuing chits to passengers to justify late arrival at the work-place.

Elswehere in France two out of three TGV fast trains were running and about one in two inter-city trains, but nearly all Eurostar servces to London and Thalys services to Brussels were on time.

The stoppage, which was to last till 8.00 a.m.Thursday, was called by four unions to protest against a one percent pay offer from the management of state-owned SNCF, and plans to shed 3,500 jobs, mainly in the ailing freight sector.

SNCF employs around 170,000 staff who enjoy job security for life, and can retire at 55 – train-drivers at 50. The company is heavily indebted, with a EUR 91 million (USD 115 million) shortfall written into this year’s budget and a backlog of EUR 16 billion waiting to be paid off.

Union leaders said the protest was also against government plans – spelled out in a new year address by President Jacques Chirac – to introduce a guaranteed minimum service during public sector disputes and thus avoid the regular scenes of commuter chaos such as Wednesday’s.

The government hopes to introduce a law during the course of 2004, but Marc Blondel, secretary-general of the Workers’ Force (FO) union, said it was an assault on the right to strike and called for the public’s solidarity in pursuit of the railway-men and -women’s claims.

“When you have a gun held to your head, that’s not quite the same as just having to walk three kilometres to get to work,” he told a radio interviewer who asked if passengers were not being “held hostage” by the transport strikers.

“If the government wants to resort to force and impose a law restricting the right to strike at the SNCF, then the CGT will not allow it to happen and will create the conditions for a conflict that will go well beyond the company itself,” warned Didier Le Reste, of the CGT union.

But Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, who heads the business organisation Medef, said a miminum service law was essential because the public could “no longer tolerate the abuse of the right to strike.”

“It is pretty primitive and almost barbarous to decide suddenly that millions of people will not be able to go to work or get their children from school,” he said.

At the capital’s Gare du Nord station, passengers were caught between resignation and fury at the disruption.

“If every time you don’t get the pay increase you want you stop work, it’s no wonder France is going backwards. A few years ago we were the fourth economic power in the world. Now the English and the Italians have overtaken us – and it’s not going to stop,” said one woman.

“I used to be part of silent France, who was taken hostage but shut up,” said Denys Durand-Viel, a member of the group “Working France” who handed out leaflets at the station urging people to wear a white scarf to show their opposition to the strike.

“But now more and more people are saying: enough is enough,” he said.


                                Subject: France news