French rail strike: Lawmakers set to debate reforms

Commuters arrive by train during a strike by French SNCF railway workers at the Gare de l'Est station in Paris. (Reuters)

Commuters arrive by train during a strike by French SNCF railway workers at the Gare de l'Est station in Paris. (Reuters)

France’s longest rail strike in years rolled on for a second week on Tuesday as lawmakers were set to debate a contentious debt-cutting reform plan opposed by unions.

The crippling action – which comes as the tourist season enters a peak phase – has proved a key challenge for the embattled Socialist government, which has said it will not kowtow to the strikers. 

The state-run SNCF rail operator reported better services with more trains running on Tuesday as it deployed some 10 000 employees to guide affected passengers and commuters. The action, in a country where strikes occur regularly, drew outrage on Tuesday with a poll published in Le Parisien showing that 76% opposed the protest, which has so far cost at least $108-billion). 

On Tuesday, 60% of trains on major routes – including the super-fast TGV trains – were expected to run on average. One of two trains were expected to be running to Italy and Switzerland, and one of three to Spain. 

Services to Germany and Britain remained unaffected. 

The reform plan
The SNCF has taken costly special measures, including hiring thousands of extra workers, to ensure high school students got priority places as they headed to sit their final exams this week. 

It said there would be a “marked improvement” in services on Tuesday. The parliamentary debate is due to continue until Thursday.

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

The reform plan 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 two unions still backing the strikes, the CGT and Sud-Rail, rejected the accord and say the plans will lead to job losses without reducing the debt. SNCF management met with the striking unions on Monday but no progress was made and the strike was extended to a seventh day on Tuesday. 

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

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