French finance minister says committed to reforms as strikes bite

Posted April 04, 2018

Rail workers across France have gone on strike for the first day of a three-month rolling walkout, the latest and potentially biggest battle over labor laws in the country since President Emmanuel Macron took office last May promising to transform the jobs market.

Only one in eight high-speed TGV trains and a fifth of regional trains were running on what French media have dubbed "black Tuesday".

The employees at France's state rail operator SNCF started walking out from 7 pm on Monday, April 2, beginning a series of disruptions on two out of every five days.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to strip away job guarantees and other benefits for new hires for the railway system. The strikes of 1995 paralyzed France and forced prime minister Alain Juppe to pull the reforms - a defeat which ultimately prompted Juppe to quit.

A train at the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris is packed with commuters on Tuesday, as a strike by rail workers severely hit services.

"This government has had an easy time so far, but this is a real political battle." former transport ministers Dominique Bussereau, who supports the government reforms, said on France2 television.

"I hear that there may be fears on the part of the railway workers".

A strike will reduce electricity production to zero at Uniper's biomass and coal-fired power generation plants in France on Wednesday, electricity grid operator RTE said.

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Mr Macron is planning to phase out SCNF's generous contracts, which include automatic annual pay rises, protection against dismissal, early retirement and free tickets for workers' family members.

Many students, who have launched their own demonstrations against education reform, joined the protest, and some workers in other sectors downed tools in sympathy with the rail workers.

France's high taxes and strict labour laws have long hurt its image with foreign investors, although that is changing after Macron made it easier to hire and fire workers and committed to cutting corporate tax to the European Union average.

Borne also said she was looking for dialogue with the unions, a claim that Santinelli, the rail union spokesman, disputed. The government believes it is acting with a mandate for change, but the unions have always succeeded in making the government back down.

Working conditions are often very hard; physically demanding work, night and weekend hours and travelling throughout France.

Macron will need to keep the public on his side if he is to defy the unions and push the reforms through. The unions say the debt was caused by excessive investment in France's high-speed network and accuse Macron of paving the way for privatisation, which French officials deny.

What remains unclear is whether Macron might offer further concessions to get the unions to back down before the strikes bite.

Some energy sector workers walked out on Tuesday in protest against the planned liberalisation of the power sector, but there was little impact on power output. 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.

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