October 24, 2016

French rail strike bites amid labour law standoff

Striking rail workers halted about half of all 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.

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 per cent of trains to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland were running.

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 per cent 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 Socialist government played down the disruption and stuck to its refusal to withdraw the planned labour reform, designed to make hiring and firing easier and 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 Euro 2016 soccer tournament in France.

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.”

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 initial draft that would cap the compensation labour courts can award for unfair dismissal.

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