France faces strike chaos ahead of Euro 2016

A railway passenger walks on empty platform during an SNCF French national railways strike in Paris, France on May 25. The protest takes place as part of wide-spread protests against the French government's labor reform project.
A railway passenger walks on empty platform during an SNCF French national railways strike in Paris, France on May 25. The protest takes place as part of wide-spread protests against the French government's labor reform project. PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (AFP) - Looming air and train strikes are threatening to bring chaos to France less than two weeks before Euro 2016 kicks off, with unions standing firm on Monday in demanding that controversial labour reforms are scrapped.

As the head of France's bosses' federation accused unions of behaving like "terrorists", the fresh industrial unrest was set to hit transport just days before fans begin arriving for the start of the football championships on June 10.

Paris tourism chiefs voiced fears that the strikes and rallies that have frequently descended into violence are putting off visitors to one of the world's top tourist destinations.

"The scenes of guerilla-type action in the middle of Paris, beamed around the world, reinforce the feeling of fear and misunderstanding" among potential visitors still anxious after November's terror attacks which killed 130 people in the French capital, the tourist board said.

President Francois Hollande and the Socialist government are refusing to buckle to the hardline CGT union's demand that it withdraw the reforms, designed to make it easier to hire and fire employees.

After attempting to paralyse the country with blockades of refineries and fuel depots last week, the CGT has responded by calling for strikes on the national rail network beginning on Tuesday and on the Paris Metro from Thursday.

Air travellers are also set to face more cancellations and delays.

After weeks of trading insults, CGT leader Philippe Martinez revealed he had received a phone call from Prime Minister Manuel Valls to discuss the bitter standoff.

Martinez refused to reveal what they had discussed in Saturday's call but told BFMTV: "The fact that he deigns to call the spokesman of France's biggest union rather than denigrate him is a good sign." But Pierre Gattaz, head of the MEDEF employers' federation, didn't mince his words about what was needed.

"To have the rule of law respected, you have to ensure that minorities who behave a bit like hooligans, like terrorists, do not block the whole country," he told newspaper Le Monde.

On the ground, six of France's eight oil refineries were still halted or running at reduced capacity due to union action.

Workers at the oil terminal in the northern port of Le Havre - which supplies kerosene to Paris's two main airports - voted on Monday to extend their blockade until Wednesday.

Aviation unions have called for stoppages next weekend and Air France pilots voted on Monday to go on strike for at least six days in June in a separate dispute over productivity targets, which could spark added chaos for Euro 2016 visitors.

At the heart of the dispute are measures designed to inject more flexibility into France's famously-rigid 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, stuck at just under 10 percent.

Unions are also 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.

Despite the disruption caused to their daily lives, nearly half - 46 per cent - of French people still support the union's call, a poll in the Journal du Dimanche showed on Sunday.

The conflict comes a year before presidential elections in which Hollande is considering seeking a second term despite popularity ratings that are among the lowest for a post-war French leader.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Monday that France had to project a "positive message" and demonstrate that its tourist sector remains open for business despite the industrial action of recent weeks.

"We face problems and we must do everything to resolve them. The spirit of responsibility will win through. Through dialogue we will find the solution, which will (restore) calm," he said.