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French rail strike bites amid labour law standoff

Reuters , Wednesday 1 Jun 2016
France
Passenger walks past an empty a platform at the Saint-Charles railway station, in Marseille , southern France, Wednesday, June, 1, 2016 (Photo: AP)
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Striking rail workers halted about half of French train services on Wednesday in a dispute over working time as a standoff between the militant CGT union and the Socialist government over a proposed labour law reform dragged on.

Tension mounted between the union and the Medef employers' federation, with the CGT urging energy workers to cut power supplies to the bosses' Paris headquarters.

The SNCF state railway said six out of 10 high-speed TGV trains were running, along with one-third of other inter-city services and half of regional trains. Heavy flooding also cut some lines in central France and the rail link to Luxembourg.

Eurostar train services to Britain were not affected, while 75 percent of trains to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland were running, and about 40 percent to Spain and Germany.

Three of the four rail unions called their members out on an open-ended strike over a planned reorganisation even though the government has intervened to press SNCF management to protect train drivers' weekends off. Managers say that concession could make the heavily indebted company uncompetitive when it has to open up to private competition in 2020 under EU rules.

SNCF said 17 percent of its staff were on strike, up slightly from a previous strike last week, and forecast similar levels of traffic for Thursday. The CGT is also on strike at oil refineries and one-fifth of petrol stations are short of fuel.

The number two pilots' union at flag carrier Air France said it would give notice of plans to stage a two-to-four day strike from the end of next week in a separate dispute over curbs on pilots' pay. That would coincide with the first days of the Euro 2016 soccer championship in France.

"PERMANENT DRAMA"

The Socialist government played down the disruption and stuck to its refusal to withdraw its planned labour reform, which is designed to make hiring and firing easier and to encourage negotiations on flexiblity at company level.

"France loves to give this image of itself as a sort of permanent drama, but that's not the reality. France is not at a standstill," Jean-Marie Le Guen, secretary of state for relations with parliament, told Radio Classique.

The government has pulled out its chequebook to settle a series of sectoral disputes this week in an effort to prevent them coalescing into a nationwide protest movement ahead of next week's start of the soccer tournament.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez told LCP television his union had no intention of disrupting the soccer championship and urged the government to negotiate. But he also insisted it scrap a key article of the bill that would give company-level deals precedence over sector-wide agreements on pay and conditions.

"There's no question of blocking the Euros," Martinez said. "It's not transport strikes that will block the Euros."

Martinez has said he will sue Medef chief Pierre Gattaz for describing his union as "terrorists" and "thugs". Gattaz, livid over the CGT action, said on Wednesday the "terrorist" label was inappropriate but he stood by the rest of his description.

The conservative opposition vowed to amend the labour bill in the Senate, where it has a majority, to make it tougher. The government can overrule the upper house when the legislation returns to the lower house for a final reading in July.

Opposition leaders said they would try to restore provisions dropped from the government's intial draft that would cap the compensation labour courts can award for unfair dismissal.

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