The Korea Times
France readies itself for massive rail strikes
— France braced Monday for the start of three months of rolling rail strikes, the first in a series of walkouts affecting sectors from energy to garbage collection as President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda comes up against resistance.
Staff at state rail operator SNCF started walking off the job from 7.00 pm (1700 GMT), kicking off stoppages on two out of every five days which unions warn will cause major disruption for France’s 4.5 million train passengers.
The real action begins on what the press has dubbed “black Tuesday,” with only one high-speed TGV train out of eight running and one regional train out of five in the strike against a major overhaul of the debt-ridden SNCF.
Three out of four Eurostar trains to London and Brussels will run and Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands will operate almost as normal, but there will be none at all towards Spain, Italy and Switzerland.
Many commuters were already forced to change their travel plans on Monday.
“We are flying to New York and the strike has completely overthrown our plans,” Sophie Martin, 46, told AFP at the main station in the southern city of Lyon.
“The train strike is inadmissible. It’s too easy to take people hostage,” fumed her husband Olivier, 50.
Others, however, were more supportive of the protesters including pensioner Alain Lyothier, 67, who said he “understands the strikers.”
Rubbish collectors, some staff in the energy sector and Air France employees will also strike Tuesday in the biggest wave of industrial unrest since Macron’s election last May.
“We’re bracing for a very strong mobilization, with a heavy impact on train passengers,” a government source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Facing that, it’s up to us to ensure we stick to the course.”
The rail strikes, set to last until June 28, are being seen as the biggest challenge yet to 40-year-old Macron’s sweeping plans to shake up France and make it more competitive, earning comparisons with Margaret Thatcher’s showdown with British coal unions in 1984.
Unions accuse the centrist ex-investment banker of seeking to “destroy the public railways through pure ideological dogmatism.”
Air France, meanwhile, is set to operate 75 percent of flights Tuesday as staff stage their fourth strike in a month seeking a six-percent pay rise.
While not linked to Macron’s reforms, the Air France walkouts — also planned for April 7, 10, 11 — add to a febrile mood among France’s unions.
Macron’s government says the SNCF needs deep reforms as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020, arguing it is 30 percent more expensive to run a train in France than elsewhere.
Unions fear the changes are a first step towards privatizing the SNCF — a claim the government denies — and object to plans to strip new hires of a special rail workers’ status guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement.
Unions have so far failed to block Macron’s reforms, including controversial changes to the labor code, despite several mass protests drawing tens of thousands of people to the streets.