French railway workers strike shadows Euro 2016

PARIS: Striking railway workers were set to disrupt transport throughout France just 11 days before Euro 2016, as President Francois Hollande refused to back down over a labor dispute that has sparked months of protests.


The transport strike adds to problems still being caused by last week’s blockade of fuel depots which left motorists queuing at many petrol stations.

The rolling train strike called by the powerful CGT union is expected to affect around half of national and regional train services.

That will be followed by a strike on the Paris Metro network from Thursday and Air France pilots have voted in principle for a lengthy strike at some point in June, when Euro 2016 is in full swing.

The protests and strikes have cast a shadow over the European football championships, which are expected to attract millions of foreign visitors to France when the tournament kicks off on June 10.

Neighboring Belgium also faced growing disruption Tuesday from a public sector workers’ strike.

But despite three months of stoppages and sometimes violent demonstrations against labor reforms, Hollande again refused to bend to the unions’ demands to scrap the legislation.

The measures, which would make it easier to hire and fire employees, “will not be withdrawn”, a defiant Hollande told Sud Ouest newspaper.

“The text assures the best performance for businesses and offers new rights to employees,” he said.

“I consider it necessary to see it through to its conclusion.”

Hollande said that despite the predicted transport chaos, the biggest threat to Euro 2016 “remains terrorism”.

– ‘In government’s hands’ –

Amid concerns the strikes will hit Euro 2016 football fans, Philippe Martinez, the leader of the hardline CGT union that has led the strike action, said: “We’re not going to stop people going to see the football matches, but the government has to be prepared to discuss. Everything is in its hands.”

Paris tourism chiefs expressed concerns Monday that the images of strikes and demonstrators clashing with police beamed around the world were putting off visitors to France.

The “guerrilla-type” scenes “reinforce the feeling of fear and misunderstanding” among potential visitors still anxious after November’s jihadist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, the tourist board said.

The train strike that will start later Tuesday will affect 40 percent of the high-speed TGV trains and half of suburban services in the Paris region, Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said.

Air travelers are also set to face more cancellations and delays after Air France pilots voted Monday to go on strike for at least six days in June in a separate dispute over productivity targets.

Pierre Gattaz, head of the MEDEF employers’ federation, accused the unions Monday of behaving like “terrorists”.

“To have the rule of law respected, you have to ensure the minority who behave a bit like hooligans, like terrorists, do not block the whole country,” he told Le Monde newspaper.

Six of France’s eight oil refineries were still halted or running at reduced capacity due to union action.

Workers at the oil terminal in the northern port of Le Havre — which supplies kerosene to Paris’s two main airports — voted Monday to extend their blockade until Wednesday.

– Belgium hit too –

Belgium faced growing disruption Tuesday after staff at schools, city transport networks, airports and government offices received calls to join striking railworkers and prison guards.

At the heart of the dispute in France are measures designed to inject more flexibility into the labor market by making it easier to make employees redundant and hire new ones.

Companies would also be able to negotiate terms and conditions with their workers rather than be bound by industry-wide agreements.

But unions say the moves will erode job security and fail to bring down unemployment, which is stuck at around 10 percent.

Unions are also furious that the government rammed the reforms through the lower house of parliament without a vote.

They have called for another national day of rallies and strikes on June 14, the day that the Senate begins examining the law.

The conflict comes a year before presidential elections in which Hollande is considering seeking a second term despite polls showing he is one of the most unpopular post-war French leaders.