French rail staff stage ‘Black Tuesday’ protests against overhaul

National and international services hit on first day of rolling walkouts over Macron proposals

French rail workers have launched three months of rolling train strikes in what threatens to become the largest and most chaotic industrial action against Emmanuel Macrons drive to overhaul state transport and liberalise the economy.

Called Black Tuesday in the media, the opening day of train strikes was expected to cause disruption for Frances 4.5 million rail passengers around 33% of all train staff and more than 75% of drivers walked out.

Only one regional train in five and one high-speed TGV train out of eight was running. Commuter lines into Paris were severely affected, and international train services were cut, with no trains between France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain and three out of four trains running on the Eurostar service connecting to London.

Stoppages are planned across the countrys rail network for two days out of every five until 28 June. Unions are protesting against the centrist French presidents plan to push through sweeping changes to the vast state rail system.

Commuters stand in a crowded train at a station Paris. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

The rail sector is traditionally one of Frances riskiest political issues; a battleground on which Macron is refusing to budge in order to prove that he can face down strikes and continue with a liberalising overhaul of other sectors.

The government argues that Frances heavily in debt state railway company, the SNCF, has to be made more efficient before local and national passenger services open up to competition in coming years under EU rules.

The government intends to cut rail workers special employment rights, so that new hires would not have jobs for life or special retirement provisions. But there are also plans to change the SNCF structure, turning it into a publicly listed company.

Unions and politicians on the left fear that even if the state owned 100% of shares, transforming the rail operator into a publicly listed company could lead to privatisation. The government denies this is its goal.

Were defending the French public service, not just rail workers, said Emmanuel Grondein, the head of Sud Rail, one of the four unions behind the industrial action. The Socialist politician Julien Dray warned of a veiled plan for rampant privatisation.

The standoff has become a public relations battle that has hit at the heart of Macrons programme. We need to rid this country of its strike culture, Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for Macrons party, La Rpublique En Marche, said on Monday.

SNCF agents inform commuters gathered on a platform near a train in Saint-Charles railway station in Marseille. Photograph: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Unions have bristled at suggestions by the government and Macron that rail workers enjoy unfair privileges with job-for-life guarantees, automatic annual pay rises and a generous early retirement policy. His prime minister, douard Philippe, had suggested that French people were not happy with the rail system, while rail workers argue they are protecting a state service.

The government insist it is open to dialogue with unions. Ministers hope that such a long and disruptive strike will not be popular among the public. A little more than half of French people view the strikes as unjustified, according to an Ifop poll published on Sunday. The government is focused on trying to keep public opinion onside.

Commuters expressed a mixture of sympathy and frustration with the reduced service on Tuesday.

I start work at 1:00 pm. Do you know what time I had to get up? 5:00 am, Jean Nahavua, a manager at a wholesale company who lives in Lille and commutes to Paris, told Agence France-Presse. Three months like this, its going to be complicated.

As commuters took to the roads instead, the streets of Paris were snarled with an exceptional 230 miles (370km) of traffic jams during the morning rush hour before easing, according to the traffic website Sytadin.

At the capitals busy Gare de Lyon station, the platforms were so crammed that a woman fell on to the tracks and had to be helped out by fellow passengers.

But normally busy regional stations including Nice, Lille and Marseille were virtually deserted as travellers anticipated cancellations.

Previous suggestions of overhauling the SNCF have proved controversial, with the train network grinding to a virtual halt for weeks when trade unions opposed changes to rail staffs benefits in 1995. Those strikes paralysed France and forced the then prime minister, Alain Jupp, to abandon the changes a defeat that ultimately prompted him to quit.

Staff at Air France, who are pushing for salary changes, as well as refuse collectors and some energy workers staged separate strikes on Tuesday.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/02/france-mass-rail-strikes-macron-reforms-face-opposition

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