French rail workers begin months of strike in test for Macron

Above French President Emmanuel Macron Image Credit Reuters

French railway services were decimated on Tuesday, the first day of rolling strikes which are due to run for months in a serious test for President Emmanuel Macron's resolve to modernize the French economy. Only one in eight long-distance trains ran on Tuesday, and train connections to Switzerland, Spain and Italy were completely cancelled.

Unions plan to strike two days out of every five until the end of June.

In stations like the Gare du Nord and the Gare de Lyon there were persons who fell on the railways, fainted and other emergency situations caused by crowds. The strikes of 1995 paralysed France and forced Prime Minister Alain Juppe to pull the reforms - a defeat that ultimately prompted Juppe to quit and then-president Jacques Chirac to dissolve the government.

Other sectors could join the strike as it continues in protest at broader changes to labor laws proposed by Macron.

Farid Hachelef, a 32-year-old who works in construction, said he had spent the night in Paris with a friend rather than trying to travel in from the northern suburb of Argenteuil, "otherwise, I would never make it".

France's national train company is warning that a workers' strike will disrupt train service within France and elsewhere in Europe today and tomorrow.

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Just over half (51%) of those surveyed in Sunday's IFOP poll said they support the reforms.

A senior SNCF manager, Alain Krakovitch, told Le Parisien that only 12% of high-speed TGV trains would operate on Tuesday, and the low-priced Ouigo service would be at a standstill. One in every three trains to Germany was to operate, while the Eurostar service connecting London, Paris and Brussels was down to three out of every four trains, the SNCF said.

At its core, Macron's reform would abolish the railway employees' quasi-status as civil servants, which includes job-for-life guarantees, retirement at an average age of 54 and automatic annual pay rises. Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands will operate nearly normally, but there will be none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland.

Macron wants to transform SNCF, which adds $3.69 billion (3 billion euros) of debt a year to a pile now running at $57.80 billion (47 billion euros), into a profit-maker. The government has already given some ground, suggesting that the advent of foreign competition on French rail tracks can be delayed until as late as 2033 in some cases. This time around, however, all main trade unions in France have backed the railway strike.

Further walkouts are planned for April 7, 10 and 11.

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