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Tensions rise in France as rail strike rolls on

17th June 2014, Comments 0 comments

Tensions rose in France on Tuesday as the longest rail strike in years rolled on for a second week and lawmakers debated a contentious debt-cutting reform plan at the heart of the crippling walkout.

The work stoppage -- which comes as the tourist season enters a peak phase -- has proved a challenge for the embattled Socialist government which has said it will not bow to the strikers, and caused incomprehension among a large part of the population.

The state-run SNCF rail operator reported better services with more trains running as it deployed some 10,000 employees to guide affected passengers and commuters.

But as lawmakers began debating the proposed reforms in parliament, the strikers staged a protest outside the National Assembly and in several cities across the country. The parliamentary debate is due to run on until Thursday.

They also briefly blocked the tracks in Paris's busy Montparnasse station and decided to extend the strike by another day to Wednesday.

In the afternoon, up to 300 strikers forced their way into the office of public television France 3 in the eastern city of Lyon, demanding a live debate with Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier, but later left without getting their request met.

In the southern port city of Marseille, meanwhile, their peers took direct action by addressing passengers in the railway station's main hall.

"There is a real rising anger at the way we have been singled out for blame" by the government, said Philippe Goalard, a rail worker since 1995.

"Perhaps we haven't communicated enough... and in this second week of the strike we need to explain more."

- Rising ire -

The walkout, in a country where strikes occur regularly, drew outrage with a poll published in Le Parisien newspaper Tuesday showing that 76 percent of the French opposed the protest, which has so far cost at least 80 million euros ($108 million).

The poll also showed that only one in three French understood the reasons behind the strike.

Exasperation mounted with five organisations representing rail commuters taking steps to fuse into a single, nationwide entity and demanding an immediate end to the strike.

"The absence of transport at a time when young people are taking (final) exams is unacceptable," the newly baptised National Coordination of Rail Commuters (CNUT) said.

On Tuesday, 60 percent of trains on major routes -- including the super-fast TGV trains -- were running on average.

One of two trains were running to Italy and Switzerland and one in three to Spain. Services to Germany and Britain remained unaffected.

The SNCF has taken costly special measures, including hiring thousands of extra workers, to ensure high school students got priority places as they head to sit their final exams this week.

- Reform at heart of strike -

The strike was sparked by a reform aimed at tackling the rail sector's soaring debt, which stands at more than 40 billion euros and is set to almost double by 2025 if nothing changes.

The reform plan looks to cut costs by uniting the SNCF train operator and RFF railway network and to eventually open up parts of the service to competition.

Some unions signed up to the reforms after obtaining promises from the government.

But two unions still backing the strikes, the CGT and Sud-Rail, rejected the accord and say the plans will lead to job losses without reducing the debt and to greater inefficiency in the sector.

SNCF management met with the striking unions on Monday but no progress was made.

The SNCF said the talks focused on a number of issues including salaries, working hours and hiring, but did not touch on the reform plans.

© 2014 AFP

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