17 июня 2014 14:06

Test for Hollande as French rail strike drags on


France's longest rail strike in years was set to go into a seventh day Tuesday after unions said a first meeting with management failed to address their demands, AFP reports.

France's longest rail strike in years was set to go into a seventh day Tuesday after unions said a first meeting with management failed to address their demands, AFP reports.

The strike has crippled France's rail network as the tourist season enters its peak and has set a crucial test for President Francois Hollande's embattled Socialist government.

The secretary general of the hardline CGT union, Gilbert Garrel, dismissed a meeting with management on Monday -- the first since the strike began last Wednesday -- as a "provocation".

Garrel said the head of the SNCF rail operator, Guillaume Pepy, had "closed the door" on the strikers "by saying that our demands were off the agenda".

The strike was prompted by a reform aimed at tackling the rail sector's soaring debt, which stands at more than 40 billion euros and is set to almost double by 2025 if nothing changes.

It looks to cut costs by uniting the SNCF train operator and RFF railway network and to eventually open up parts of the service to competition.

Some unions signed up to the reforms after obtaining promises from the government. But the CGT and Sud-Rail unions rejected the accord saying the plans will lead to job losses without reducing the debt.

The talks Monday focused on a number of issues including salaries, working hours and hiring, but did not touch on the reform plans, both the SNCF and CGT said.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed the government would not back down despite the protest, calling the strike "useless and irresponsible".

"We don't see how it (the strike) makes sense when talks are continuing and the government's doors remain open," Valls told France Info radio.

Pepy said the strike had already cost 80 million euros ($108 million) in lost revenues and compensation payouts.

The SNCF said up to two-thirds of trains were cancelled on some high-speed TGV lines, while only one in two trains were running on other lines.

Fewer than half of scheduled trains were running on inter-city lines and only a quarter on Paris region lines.

International lines to Spain, Italy and Switzerland were also disrupted, but Eurostar links to London and Thalys lines to Brussels and Amsterdam were operating as normal.

SNCF said travellers could expected a "notable improvement" in Paris region lines on Tuesday.

On Monday, the SNCF was forced to implement costly special measures -- including bringing in thousands of extra workers -- to ensure that high school students were given priority places as they headed to sit their final exams.

'Nothing to lose'

The strike has been the biggest industrial action since Hollande's government took office two years ago.

The president is struggling to bring France's deficit under control, kickstart the country's stagnant economy and stem rising joblessness.

His efforts have so far borne little fruit and his popularity has sunk to the lowest level of any modern French president.

Analyst Frederic Dabi of polling firm IFOP said that with an approval rating of only 18 percent, Hollande could afford to take a firm stand on the rail reform.

"The negative opinions are so strong that he has nothing to lose," Dabi said.

"He can allow himself to be firm and promote his cause, explaining that these reforms must take place and will allow savings."

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