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Tensions mount as French rail strike goes on

The Local/AFP · 17 Jun 2014, 14:42

Published: 17 Jun 2014 14:42 GMT+02:00

LATEST: 

  • SNCF report 'improvement' in rail traffic on Tuesday
  • Controversial rail reform goes before parliament
  • Three out of four French people are against the strike, a new poll says
  • Strikers protest outside Assembly and block tracks at Montparnasse station
  • Strikers vote to continue their action into Wednesday - the eighth consecutive day

Tensions rose in France on Tuesday as the longest rail strike in years rolled on for a second week and lawmakers debated a contentious debt-cutting reform plan at the heart of the crippling walkout.

On Tuesday unions voted to extend their action for a further 24-hours until Wednesday evening just as lawmakers, most of whom support the bill, began looking at the proposals in the National Assembly.

As MPs discussed the reform inside the parliament, outside there were violent scenes when riot police and rail union workers briefly clashed. Reporters on the scene reported that flares and bottles were hurled in the direction of riot cops, who protected the entrance to the parliament, as tweeted by @julien_langlet at the scene.

Other reports said strikers had thrown flares onto tracks at Montparnasse station in an attempt to block trains.

In the afternoon, up to 300 strikers forced their way into the office of public television France 3 in the eastern city of Lyon, demanding a live debate with Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier, but later left without getting their request met.

In the southern port city of Marseille, meanwhile, their peers took direct action by addressing passengers in the railway station's main hall.

"There is a real rising anger at the way we have been singled out for blame" by the government, said Philippe Goalard, a rail worker since 1995.

"Perhaps we haven't communicated enough... and in this second week of the strike we need to explain more.

"There was some better news for commuters and travellers on Tuesday with France's rail operator SNCF forecasting a "notable improvement" in the number of trains running.

While TGV trains continue to be affected with six out of ten trains running on the North and West Coast main lines and four out of ten on the main south-east axis, in Paris things appeared to be improving, especially on the notorious RER B that serves the airports.

SNCF reported that there would be one train every ten minutes running from Gare du Nord on Tuesday. RER lines C, D and E will also be affected although RER A has been spared any disruption.

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

SNCF reiterated their call for the public not to travel by train unless it was absolutely necessary. For more information on the trains that are running CLICK HERE.

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

It looks to cut costs by bringing together 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 the CGT and Sud-Rail unions rejected the accord saying the plans will lead to job losses without reducing the debt.

Hours before the bill was due to go before parliament Transport Secretary Frédéric Cuvillier told French radio that "he didn't understand the arguments put forward by the strikers and that they had nothing to do with the reform.

"The law will pass, it will be voted through," Cuvillier said.

The great French rail strike: What is all the fuss about?

The two unions CGT and Sud-Rail extended their action into a seventh day after talks with management from SNCF broke down. 

The secretary general of the hard-line CGT union, Gilbert Garrel, dismissed a meeting with management on Monday - the first since the strike began last Tuesday evening - as a "provocation".

Garrel said the head of the SNCF rail operator, Guillaume Pepy, had "closed the door" on the strikers "by saying that our demands were off the agenda".

The talks on Monday focused on a number of issues including salaries, working hours and hiring, but did not touch on the reform plans, both the SNCF and CGT said.

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.

SNCF chief Pepy said the strike had already cost €80 million ($108 million) in lost revenues and compensation payouts.

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

The strike has been the biggest industrial action since Hollande's government took office two years ago, but it seems the public have had enough.

An opinion poll published in the Parisien newspaper on Tuesday revealed that three out of four people were against the strike.

The poll also showed that only one in three French understood the reasons behind the strike.

Exasperation mounted with five organisations representing rail commuters taking steps to fuse into a single, nationwide entity and demanding an immediate end to the strike.

"The absence of transport at a time when young people are taking (final) exams is unacceptable," the newly baptised National Coordination of Rail Commuters (CNUT) said.

'We're pissed off!' French anger grows over strike

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The Local/AFP (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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