Trains grind to a halt as railway workers go on strike in France

Passengers walk on a platform at the Gare de Lyon railway station on June 1, 2016 at the start of a strike by employees of rail operator SNCF to protest against government labour reforms.
Passengers walk on a platform at the Gare de Lyon railway station on June 1, 2016 at the start of a strike by employees of rail operator SNCF to protest against government labour reforms. PHOTO: AFP
A passenger looks at the display panel indicating delayed trains on June 1, 2016 at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris.
A passenger looks at the display panel indicating delayed trains on June 1, 2016 at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Transport chaos hit France again on Wednesday (June 1), just nine days ahead of Euro 2016, as railway workers went on strike in the latest salvo of a months-long battle between the government and unions.

Between a third and half of France's trains were expected to grind to a halt, as workers from railway operator SNCF launched their eighth strike in three months, this time saying it will continue until demands for better pay and conditions are met.

The action has piled further pressure on the already deeply unpopular Socialist government, which has been besieged by months of protests and work stoppages over a controversial labour reform bill.

Metro workers in the capital were planning to walk off the job from Thursday and Air France pilots have threatened a lengthy strike in the coming weeks, when the Euro 2016 football tournament is in full swing.

"This week will see the strongest mobilisation in three months" of strikes, the head of the powerful CGT union Philippe Martinez said on Tuesday evening.

Since March, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in demonstrations that have frequently turned violent, while petrol pumps ran dry last week due to blockades of refineries and depots by CGT union activists.

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

Despite the disruption caused to their daily lives, 46 percent of French people still support the unions' calls, a poll in the Journal du Dimanche showed Sunday.

Jean, a pensioner from the southern city of Marseille, said he "wholeheartedly supported" the strikes despite delays to his train journey.

But the protests have cast a shadow over the European football championships, which begin on June 10 and are expected to attract millions of foreign visitors during a month of matches.

Wednesday's strikes were expected to see some 60 per cent of France's high-speed TGV services cut, along with 30 per cent to 40 per cent of regional trains, SNCF said.

International services to Britain and Germany were not due to be affected, but the majority of trains to Spain and Italy were likely to be cancelled.

France is not alone, with neighbouring Belgium also facing anti-austerity protests that left train services badly hit and uncollected rubbish piling up in Brussels.

The French government says its new labour law, named after Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, is aimed at reducing stubbornly high unemployment and making the struggling economy more business friendly.

The legislation would let companies set their own working conditions for new employees, rather than being bound to industry-wide agreements. Managers would be allowed to cut jobs during hard times and go beyond the 35-hour work week introduced in 2000.

Unions are also furious that the government rammed the reforms through the lower house of Parliament without a vote, and have called for another national day of strikes in two weeks when the law goes before the Senate.

Despite often violent demonstrations, President Francois Hollande has refused to scrap the legislation and has criticised the unions for tarnishing France's image ahead of the Euro 2016.

"The image of a paralysed country conforms to the worst French-bashing cliches," a Socialist party spokesman said.

But leader of the opposition Nicolas Sarkozy has slammed the government's handling of the crisis, describing it as a "shambles" and warning of "anarchy" on the streets of France.

"Weakness, cowardice, a total loss of authority: this is the spectacle we are witnessing," the former president told magazine Valeurs Actuelles in comments due to be published on Thursday.

"The Bill is far too weak to solve the problems, but stinging enough to arouse the passions of the left. The government has proven its weakness faced with the protests."