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Rolling strikes by France’s rail workers test Macron

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Commuters help a woman who fell onto the railway tracks at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris during a nationwide strike by railway workers. Reuters

PARIS (AFP) – Commuters across France faced severe disruptions yesterday as rail workers launched three months of rolling strikes, a major test of President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to reshape the country through sweeping reforms.

More than three-quarters of train drivers joined the first day of the walkout, according to the SNCF, the heavily indebted state rail operator which Mr Macron wants to overhaul. But overall, only a third of staff were on strike, the company said.

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

And with stoppages planned two days out of five until June 28, weeks of disruption lie ahead for France’s 4.5 million daily train passengers.

“We have been asking for the same thing for several weeks, that the government completely reconsider its plan,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union said.

Staff at Air France, garbage collectors and some energy workers also staged separate walkouts yesterday in a growing atmosphere of social strife 11 months after 40-year-old Mr Macron came to power.

Public support for the rail strike stands at just below half, according to an Ifop poll. Commuters expressed mixture of sympathy and frustration with the reduced service.

As commuters took to the roads instead, the streets of Paris were snarled with an “exceptional” 370 kilometers of traffic jams during the morning rush hour before easing, according to traffic website Sytadin.

At the capital’s busy Gare de Lyon station, the platforms were so crammed that a woman fell onto the tracks and had to be helped out by fellow passengers.

But major regional stations including Nice, Lille and Marseille were virtually deserted as travelers anticipated cancellations.

Three-quarters of Eurostar trains to London and Brussels were running yesterday and Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands were operating almost normally, but there were none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland.

At Air France, where staff are striking for the fourth time in a month to demand a pay rise, managers said 75 percent of flights would operate. Further walkouts are planned for April 7, 10 and 11.

There was no respite expected before the second day of walkouts today, and the economy is set to take a hit as the strike rumbles on.

Alain Krakovitch, chief of the SNCF’s Transilien network, estimated the cost of the strike at “between 10 and 20 million euros” a day.

Mr Macron says the SNCF, saddled with 46.6 billion euros of debt, needs to drastically improve its efficiency and cut running costs as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

His government is planning to stop granting the rail workers’ special status – which guarantees jobs for life and early retirement – to new SNCF hires entering the company. It also wants to combine the three bodies that make up the SNCF into a single state-owned company, prompting fears it could be a step towards privatisation.

The rail strikes are being seen as the biggest challenge yet to Mr Macron’s sweeping plans to liberalise the French economy and make it more competitive, earning comparisons to Margaret Thatcher’s 1984 showdown with Britain’s coal miners.

For France’s once fearsome unions, it is a major test of how much influence they still hold.

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