Unions begin 3-month rolling rail strike in test for Macron

Paris: Commuters across France faced severe disruption on Tuesday 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 Macron wants to overhaul.
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. They need to start again from scratch,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, told France Inter radio.
The strike was accompanied by demonstrations by several hundreds of rail workers in Paris and other cities and represents the biggest wave of industrial unrest since Macron came to power last May.
The railways are a bastion of trade unionism in France and have forced governments into U-turns in the past during major stoppages.
“For Macron, the test is really starting today,” labour market economist Andrea Garnero from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said.
“Unions are still able to gather support when they go on strike in France, although maybe less so than in the past,” he added.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Tuesday that the government would push ahead with its planned overhaul for the SNCF, which he said required 14 billion euros ($17.2 billion) of public money each year.
“I must say that I hear the strikers, who speak fervently at times, as much as I hear those who do not accept this strike,” Philippe told lawmakers in parliament.
A second day of strikes on Wednesday is set to cause a similar level of disruption as the first day, the SNCF warned.
Staff at Air France, garbage collectors and some energy workers staged separate walkouts on Tuesday in a growing atmosphere of social strife 11 months after 40-year-old Macron came to power.
Public support for the rail strike stands at just below half, according to an Ifop poll released on Sunday, and commuters expressed a mixture of sympathy and frustration with the reduced service.
“I start work at 1:00 pm. Do you know what time I had to get up? 5:00 am,” complained Jean Nahavua, a manager at a wholesale company who lives in Lille and commutes to Paris.
Pascal Lasnier, a banker waiting at the same station, added: “I understand that they want to defend their piece of the pie, but maybe there are other ways of doing it.” — AFP