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French government vows not to back down against striking rail workers

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said that the government will not back down on its planned rail reforms after three months of rolling strikes kicked off in France on Tuesday. Major rail disruption is set to continue on Wednesday.

French government vows not to back down against striking rail workers
Protestors clash with police during a demonstration for French railway workers. Photo: AFP
Defending the reform of the SNCF, the prime minister said he heard both the “strikers” and the users “who want to continue to work”.
 
“I respect the strikers because the right to strike is constitutionally guaranteed,” he said, adding: “But if the strikers are to be respected, the millions of French who want to get around must also be heard.”
 
Philippe went on to say that he believed there was support for the reforms from the general public.
 
“I must say that as much as I hear strikers, who sometimes speak forcefully, I hear those who do not accept this strike,” he said. 
 
“More precisely, [I hear] those who want to go to work, want to continue to benefit from their constitutional freedom to come and go,” he said, adding that the reforms will “open up the entire rail system to competition, transform the status of the company, and the status of railway workers.”
 
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In Pictures: Rail strikes lead to travel chaos across France

Photo: AFP

But unions on Tuesday also defended their position.
 
Head of the hard left CGT union Philippe Martinez said: “The rail workers should not be ashamed about blocking the whole country.”
 
“We do not want a hard conflict. But we have been forced into it,” Martinez told France Inter on Tuesday. 
 
“We have been asking for the same thing for several weeks — that the government completely reconsider its plan. They need to start again from scratch,” he added.
 
Wednesday will be the second day of the first two-day rail workers' strike. Services are expected to remain severely disrupted, with just one TGV train out of seven operating and one TER and Transilien train out of five scheduled as normal, announced the SNCF on Tuesday evening.
 
All train services were severely hit, with some lines closed entirely. Only one in eight high speed TGV trains were running.
 
But this is just the start of a total three months of industrial action. The rolling strikes are set to continue for three months, a move that will test President Emmanuel Macron's resolve to reshape France with sweeping reforms.
 
The strikes will cause chaos for France's 4.5 million train passengers, with stoppages planned two days out of every five until June 28th. Unions say they will only call off the action if Macron drops his bid to force a major overhaul at state rail operator SNCF.
 
On Monday the government's transport minister Elisabeth Borne said the unions were to blame for causing the travel chaos.
 
“Rail users don't understand the reasons for this strike,” she said.
 
 
“No one can understand how halfway through a consultation period the unions refuse to move. They want a long movement but I am ready for dialogue,” she said.
 
The strike was accompanied by demonstrations by several hundreds of rail workers in Paris and other cities, representing the biggest wave of industrial unrest since Macron came to power last May.
   
The railways are a bastion of trade unionism in France and have forced governments into U-turns in the past during major stoppages.
   
“For Macron, the test is really starting today,” labour market economist Andrea Garnero from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) told AFP.
   
“Unions are still able to gather support when they go on strike in France, although maybe less so than in the past,” he added.

STRIKES

French customs officers strike over job cuts

Customs officers across France will walk out on Thursday in protest at job cuts that unions say will “weaken the customs network”.

French customs officers strike over job cuts

The national strike on Thursday, March 10th is expected to lead to delays at ports, airports and on the Eurostar.

The strike, which will include a rally outside the National Assembly building in Paris, was called by the CFDT-Douane and has the support of other unions. 

A work-to-rule protest over pay and conditions by customs officers in 2019, under the shadow of Brexit, led to delays and disruption at airports, as well as ports including Calais and Dunkirk, and on Eurostar trains.

Unions are calling on the government to axe plans to switch responsibility for import duty collection to the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques by 2024, at the cost of 700 customs’ officer jobs – and, according to strikers, tens of billions of euros to State coffers.

“We are asking for the reforms to be stopped, mainly that of the transfer of taxation, which is disorganising the network with the elimination of nearly a thousand jobs,” CFDT-Douane’s secretary general David-Olivier Caron said.

The planned job cuts come after years of restructuring and streamlining that has seen thousands of positions disappear, the unions say, when customs fraud and smuggling is rising because of a lack of resources.

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