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Saturday 26 May 2018

France hit by major rail strike

Rail workers are protesting against government plans to eliminate a special status that they have enjoyed for decades.

Passengers and commuters wait at rush hour at Gare de Lyon train station, in Paris (Francois Mori/AP)
Passengers and commuters wait at rush hour at Gare de Lyon train station, in Paris (Francois Mori/AP)

By Angela Charlton and Masha Macpherson, Associated Press

A major French railway strike has brought the country’s famed high-speed trains to a halt, leaving passengers stranded and posing the biggest test so far for President Emmanuel Macron’s economic strategy.

The SNCF national rail authority said about 12% of trains are running on Tuesday, in the first of a series of strikes set to last three months.

Passengers are packing platforms or hitching rides on traffic-clogged roads and sharing travel tips online.

Traffic is also disrupted on Eurostar lines to Britain and trains to Germany, though most trains are running as usual.

Strikes and protest actions on Tuesday are also hitting Air France flights, garbage collection and universities.

“Really this is catastrophic. Something needs to be done, we are the victims, we haven’t done anything. We need to get to work like everyone else,” said 56-year-old commuter Aziza Fleris.

“I was really positive this morning, but now… You should have seen what happened on the train. Some people felt unwell, women were crying. Children. This isn’t normal.”

Rail workers are protesting against government plans to eliminate a special status that they have enjoyed for decades.

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Commuters board a train at Saint-Lazare station in Paris (Thibault Camus/AP)

The “cheminot” status effectively guarantees jobs for life and other benefits, in keeping with the image of France’s railways as an essential pillar of the country’s infrastructure and its public services.

Mr Macron’s government says that is no longer tenable, because today’s globalised and increasingly automated economy favours more flexible workforces.

In addition, with European Union rules requiring all member states to open up government-run railways to competition, the government argues that the special status puts SNCF at a disadvantage compared to potential private competitors.

Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne insisted on BFM television that the reform is “indispensable”.

The government reform would maintain the status for existing workers but abolish it for new workers.

Unions say Mr Macron – a centrist former investment banker whom critics dub the president of the rich – is threatening hard-fought French rights that workers in other countries envy, as well as damaging the whole idea of public service.

“The issue is this: Does the state want to use this public good to meet the needs of the common interest, or play Monopoly with the SNCF?” asked Thierry Nier, deputy head of the CGT-Cheminots train workers union, on Europe-1 radio.

He argued that “competition doesn’t work” and hurts passengers.

Commuters were angry at the overall situation but not necessarily taking sides.

SNCF has been warning travellers for several days to postpone their trips.

The railway sector reforms are among several measures Mr Macron is pursuing to change the way the French work.

Press Association

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