French govt tries to placate protesters

Striking CGT garbage collectors and sewer workers blocking access to the waste treatment centre of Ivry-sur-Seine, near Paris, yesterday in protest against the labour reform Bill.
Striking CGT garbage collectors and sewer workers blocking access to the waste treatment centre of Ivry-sur-Seine, near Paris, yesterday in protest against the labour reform Bill.PHOTO: REUTERS

It will hike teachers' pay, speed up rail talks, but labour reforms stay

PARIS • France's government moved yesterday to calm protests against labour law reforms ahead of the month-long European football championship, announcing a pay rise for school teachers and pledging to speed up reorganisation talks at the SNCF railways.

The Socialist government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls is urging the hardline CGT union that called a rail strike yesterday evening to propose ways out of the confrontation over a labour reform Bill that will make hiring and firing easier.

President Francois Hollande says he will not back down on key provisions of the proposed reform. But he acted on Monday to prevent a range of grievances from coalescing into a broader protest movement by restoring slashed funding for research and pledging public money to settle a dispute over performing artists' unemployment insurance.

Mr Hollande also hinted in an interview with Sud-Ouest newspaper he would announce a softening of cuts in state financing for local authorities when he addresses a congress of mayors this week.

In moves yesterday, the government announced a pay rise for school teachers worth €1 billion (S$1.54 billion) by 2019 and, with a rail strike set to start later in the day, said it had intervened over the heads of management of the SNCF state railways to speed up negotiations on a reorganisation.

The rail stoppage and calls for strikes in other transport sectors later this week have raised the spectre of chaos when France hosts the Euro 2016 tournament from June 10 to July 10, when some 2.5 million fans are expected in stadiums, including 1.5 million foreign visitors.

While Mr Hollande rejected the CGT's demand to withdraw the labour reforms, his ministers said they hoped to defuse the conflict if CGT chief Philippe Martinez showed his willingness.

Prime Minister Valls insisted his government would not gut the reform of key elements, such as a clause that gives firms more scope to agree on in-house deals on pay and conditions, saying that beyond that, "my door is open".

He scrapped a trip to Canada this month to deal with the social unrest and rolling strike action at home.

Railway workers were being called out on strike from 7pm (11pm Singapore time) yesterday for what the CGT and other smaller unions have warned will be a rolling stoppage.

Pilots at Air France announced on Monday that they too were ready to strike over planned salary curbs but had set no date.

Air controllers are planning stoppages from Friday.

Strikes in other areas have brought several oil refineries to a halt but oil industry federation chief Francis Duseux said car fuel shortages seemed to be easing, with around one in five petrol stations short of fuel.

Neighbouring Belgium was faced with growing disruptions yesterday after public-sector staff halted work in protest at the centre-right government's austerity plans, adding to ongoing strikes on the rail system and in prisons.

Thousands of trade union members took part in peaceful protests in Brussels and other cities during the latest walkout at schools, city transport networks, airports and government offices.

Pickets from trade unions prevented access to several public buildings, Belga news agency reported. Inter-city rail workers on strike since last week and prison staff who stopped work five weeks ago, meanwhile, vowed to continue their walkout in Brussels and the southern French-speaking region of Wallonia.

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 international trains to Germany were halted and services to France were reduced.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'French govt tries to placate protesters'. Print Edition | Subscribe