Sunday 18 February 2018

Threat to Euros lifts as grip of strikers eases

Militant union chiefs lose support as attempts to extend action falter

A protestor uses a tennis racket to return a tear gas canister during a demonstration to protest the government's proposed labour law reforms in Nantes
A protestor uses a tennis racket to return a tear gas canister during a demonstration to protest the government's proposed labour law reforms in Nantes
Francois Hollande

Brian Love in Paris

Strikes brought half of French train services to a standstill yesterday - but attempts by the militant CGT union to extend protests against planned labour reforms to air traffic control and the Paris underground ahead of the European Championships appeared to have failed.

Grassroots CGT activists staged attention-grabbing actions such as cutting off electricity to the holiday home of the employers' leader, as the government stuck to its guns.

Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said traffic was running normally despite a call for strikes on the Paris Metro. Unions called off an air controllers' strike, and the government is hoping to avert disruption of the Euro 2016 championships, which begin on June 10.

CGT-led stoppages disrupted refineries and nuclear power plants, but the union looked increasingly isolated in its efforts to force the government to withdraw labour law reforms that would make hiring and firing easier.

"There'll be no disruption of the airways this weekend," said Mr Vidalies after an overnight pledge by the government not to cut air control staff over the next three years prompted four other unions, and then the CGT, to cancel a strike planned for June 3-5.

Six out of 10 high-speed TGV train connections were operating, and other inter-city services were cut to a third of normal levels as some 15pc of employees stopped work, said the state-owned SNCF railway company. The SNCF is a bastion of the CGT union, one of France's two largest unions.

Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande

A smaller union was expected to call off its participation in the strike after securing government assurances of help with the SNCF's ¤50bn debt.

President François Hollande has rejected demands that he scrap a bill that the CGT says will undermine labour protection by giving firms more scope to set in-house deals on pay and terms.

His government, which insists the reform is needed to help combat an unemployment rate of 10pc, has been working flat out to defuse sectoral tensions and prevent various grievances coalescing into one big national protest.

An Ifop opinion poll for 'Le Figaro' magazine suggested public sympathy for the strike is ebbing, with 60pc saying the CGT was abusing the right to strike. Previous polls had shown the strike had majority support.

The CGT said energy workers cut power to the town hall of Tulle, Mr Hollande's political fiefdom in central France, and switched more than a million homes in the Paris region to low-cost power supply. State electricity utility EdF said fewer than 9pc of staff were on strike.

In another protest, the CGT said workers briefly halted all departures from the Gare de Lyon station in Paris by occupying the rail traffic control office at mid-day.

The CGT said its members in the southern Var region had cut off power to the holiday home of employers' leader Pierre Gattaz after he accused the union earlier this week of behaving like "terrorists" and "thugs". Mr Gattaz later withdrew the term "terrorist" as inappropriate.

Earlier this week the government announced pay rises for state-employed teachers and pledged to restore scrapped public spending for research.

It also intervened to force SNCF management to go some way towards meeting union demands that rest time be protected in a reorganisation under negotiation ahead of a Europe-wide opening of passenger rail services to private competition from 2020.

With presidential and legislative elections a year away, the concessions to teachers could help repair damaged relations with a sector generally sympathetic to the ruling Socialists.

The more immediate concern is to avert serious disruption during the Euro 2016 championships, when some 2.5 million people are expected to attend dozens of matches across the country, with 1.5 million fans expected to come from outside France.

Meanwhile in a separate development, France plans to take in 400 refugees a month from Greece under a European Union plan for distributing asylum seekers, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said yesterday, substantially increasing its intake.

The announcement came as Prime Minister Manuel Valls was in Athens to offer reassurances that Paris would live up to its commitments to take in 32,000 additional asylum seekers over the next two years.

Nearly 100 additional refugees arrived this week from Greece and Italy and another 253 are due from Greece next week, Mr Cazeneuve said.

The EU plan for sharing out refugees was agreed last September, but has been very slow in taking off.

The scheme was set up as Greece struggled to cope with the chaotic arrival of nearly a million people last year, many of them Syrian refugees, most of whom went to Germany.

Irish Independent

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