Striking transportation workers have halted nearly half of French rail services, just nine days before the Euro 2016 football tournament, in the latest labour standoff between unions and the government.
Around half of the country’s trains were cancelled on Wednesday as workers from railway operator SNCF launched their eighth strike in three months, this time saying they will continue until demands for better pay and conditions are met.
“It’s a nightmare today – even more than the other strike days,” Christine, an SNCF worker, told the AFP news agency at Ormesson station in the Paris suburbs, where commuters were struggling to squeeze on to one of the few trains that had shown up.
The strike has piled further pressure on the deeply unpopular socialist government, which has been hit by months of protests and work stoppages over a controversial labour bill.
Despite often violent demonstrations, President Francois Hollande’s government has refused to scrap the legislation, saying its new labour law is aimed at reducing stubbornly high unemployment and making the struggling economy more business-friendly.
But unions say the law favours bosses by letting them set their own working conditions for new employees, rather than being bound to industry-wide agreements, allowing companies to cut jobs during hard times and go beyond the 35-hour work week.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from the capital Paris, said France is facing a “weekend of potential public transport paralysis” as metro, port and dock workers, as well as air traffic controllers, are expected to join the strikes.
“That said, it is expected many services will operate normally,” Hull said, adding that the real pressure will be on next week when two-and-a-half million people descend on France for the kick-off of the European football championship.
“That could well be disrupted and could bring even more pressure on the French government to back down,” Hull said.
The SNCF state railway said six out of 10 high-speed TGV trains were running on Wednesday, along with a third of other inter-city services and half of regional trains. Heavy flooding also cut some lines in central France and the rail link to Luxembourg.
Eurostar train services to Britain were not affected, while 75 percent of trains to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland were running, and about 40 percent to Spain and Germany.
Three of the four rail unions called their members out on an open-ended strike over a planned reorganisation even though the government has intervened to press SNCF management to protect train drivers’ weekends off.
The government played down the disruption and stuck to its refusal to withdraw its planned labour changes.
“France loves to give this image of itself as a sort of permanent drama, but that’s not the reality. France is not at a standstill,” Jean-Marie Le Guen, secretary of state for relations with parliament, told Radio Classique.
CGT leader Philippe Martinez told LCP television his union had no intention of disrupting the football championship and urged the government to negotiate. But he also insisted it scrap a key article of the bill that would give company-level deals precedence over sector-wide agreements on pay and conditions.
“There’s no question of blocking the Euros,” Martinez said. “It’s not transport strikes that will block the Euros.”
At least 77 people were arrested last week across France during labour reform protests, which attracted an estimated 18,000 demonstrators in the French capital. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators in many of the protests.