France in grip of transport chaos as rail workers strike

PARIS • Transport chaos in France has worsened just eight days before the Euro 2016 football tournament as railway workers went on strike in the latest salvo of a months-long battle between the government and unions.

About half of France's trains were cancelled yesterday as workers from railway operator SNCF launched their eighth strike in three months, saying they will continue until their demands for better pay and conditions are met.

"It's a nightmare today - even more than the other strike days," said an SNCF worker identified only as Christine as she surveyed the chaos at Ormesson station in the Paris suburbs where commuters were struggling to squeeze on to one of the few trains that showed up.

The SNCF said 17 per cent of its staff were on strike yesterday, leading to more than two-thirds of inter-city trains and nearly half of the TGV high-speed train services being cancelled. International services to Britain and Germany were not expected to be affected, but most services to Spain and Italy were likely to be cancelled.

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

Subway workers in Paris were planning to walk off the job from today and Air France pilots have threatened a lengthy strike in the coming weeks.

The protests have cast a shadow over the month-long European football championship, which begins on June 10 and is expected to attract millions of foreign visitors.

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

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 activists.

Although most blockades have been cleared, workers at an oil terminal in the northern port of Le Havre - which supplies kerosene to Paris' two main airports - extended their blockade into yesterday.

Despite the disruptions, 46 per cent of French people still support the unions' actions, an opinion poll in the Journal du Dimanche showed.

The government says its new labour law 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 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.

President Francois Hollande has refused to scrap the legislation and has criticised the unions for tarnishing France's image.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'France in grip of transport chaos as rail workers strike'. Print Edition | Subscribe