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French rail strike: Unions extend action again

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Travellers, commuters and school students in France will endure a sixth day of misery on the rails on Monday due to the ongoing strike. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
13:45 CEST+02:00
UPDATED: Rail unions voted on Monday to continue their crippling strike against a planned reform of France's rail sector, meaning the industrial action is the longest to hit the railways since 2010. The strike was expected to disrupt the first day of France's end-of-school exams.

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France's longest rail strike in years entered its second week on Monday, causing major disruptions in a crucial test for President Francois Hollande's embattled Socialist government.

Train workers voted on Monday to continue the strike for another 24 hours, which stretches the walk-out to Tuesday, when lawmakers are set to debate the contentious rail reform that prompted the action.The strike has crippled France's rail network, disrupting the plans of millions of travellers as the country's crucial tourist season enters its peak.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed the government would not back down despite the protest, calling the strike "useless and irresponsible".

"We don't see how it (the strike) makes sense when talks are continuing and the government's doors remain open," Valls told France Info radio.

The head of the SNCF rail operator, Guillaume Pepy, said the strike had already cost 80 million euros ($108 million) in lost revenues and reimbursements.

The SNCF said up to two-thirds of trains were cancelled on some high-speed TGV lines, while only one in two trains were running on other lines.

Less than half of scheduled trains were running on inter-city lines and only a quarter on Paris region lines.

International lines to Spain, Italy and Switzerland were also disrupted, but Eurostar links to London and Thalys lines to Brussels and Amsterdam were operating as normal.

In one weekend incident, 2,300 passengers on two  TGV trains were trapped for hours overnight from Saturday to Sunday after a power cut that officials said may have been the result of vandalism.

On Monday, the SNCF was forced to implement costly special measures - including bringing in thousands of extra workers - to ensure high school students were given priority places as they headed to sit their final exams.

The strike was prompted by a reform aimed at tackling the rail sector's soaring debt, which stands at more than 40 billion euros and is set to almost double by 2025 if nothing changes.

'Nothing to lose'

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It looks to cut costs by uniting the SNCF train operator and RFF railway network and to eventually open up parts of the service to competition.

Some unions signed up to the reforms after obtaining promises from the government. But two unions still backing the strikes, the CGT and Sud-Rail, rejected the accord and say the plans will lead to job losses without reducing the debt.

The strike has been the biggest industrial action since Hollande's government took office two years ago.

Hollande is struggling to bring France's deficit under control, kickstart the country's stagnant economy and stem rising joblessness.

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