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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

French rail strikes begin three months of travel chaos

Eurostar and Air France services will be disrupted as part of widespread protests

TGV high-speed trains operated by state-owned railway company SNCF are parked near Paris. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
TGV high-speed trains operated by state-owned railway company SNCF are parked near Paris. Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

French rail workers began a wave of industrial unrest on Monday night, with rolling strikes over three months designed to paralyse much of France’s transport network in protest against government economic reforms.

Rail operator SNCF staff walked off the job at 1700 GMT on Monday, promising headaches for France's 4.5 million train passengers. The rail strike is due to run in successive waves of two days until the end of June.

Thello, which operates trains between France and Italy, said Monday and Tuesday’s night trains will be replaced with buses on the Paris-Milan and Milan-Paris route. Thello offered refunds and apologies to travellers.

"Black Tuesday" is expected to be even more chaotic as the industrial action disruption spreads across the continent.

Eurostar cancelled 29 trains from London to Paris and Brussels due to depart on Tuesday and Wednesday. The company posted a message on its website urging travellers whose trains are still running to arrive an hour early.

The Thalys train towards Belgium and the Netherlands will operate almost as normal, but AFP said there will be none at all towards Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

Air France employees are staging their fourth strike in a month on Tuesday, seeking a 6 per cent pay rise. Air France said it expects to operate 75 per cent of its flights, including 70 per cent of the carrier's long-haul flights out of Charles de Gaulle in Paris. While not linked to President Emmanuel Macron's reforms, Air France walkouts are also planned for April 7, 10 and 11.

French rubbish collectors, civil servants, gas and energy sector employees and the state broadcaster are also expected to strike in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 uprising.

The mass protests are a response to Mr Macron's agenda to make France more competitive and scrap 120,000 public sector jobs. Some have compared his plans to Margaret Thatcher's showdown with British coal unions in 1984.

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France braced for worst strikes in years

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Mr Macron's government says the SNCF needs to reform as EU countries open passenger rail to competition by 2020. He plans to push through the overhaul by executive order rather than parliamentary debate, a move criticised as undemocratic.

Unions fear the changes are a move towards privatising the SNCF and object to plans that would include stripping new recruits of a special status guaranteeing them jobs for life and early retirement.

Union membership stands at just over 11 per cent in France and analysts say the walkouts will test the strength of France's once-fierce trade unions. Jacques Chirac’s government tried to restructure the SNCF in 1995, but efforts were abandoned after four weeks of transport chaos.

Public opinion has sided with the government so far, but an Ifop survey on Sunday showed 46 per cent backed the SNCF strike, up four points from two weeks ago.

"France is tired," said an editorial in the regional Sud-Ouest newspaper. "Who will get tired the quickest? The trade unions clinging to their last bastion? Or the ambitious young president determined to turn a page?"