One of the longest French rail strikes in recent years entered its second week on Wednesday and was extended for 24 hours through Thursday as workers protest a proposed reform of the state-run rail system that would open it up to competition.
Lawmakers on Tuesday began debate on the bill that is the cause of the strike -- a measure that would unite the SNCF train operator with the RFF railway network, paving the way to opening up the French rail network to competition.
Rail staff fear the reform will mean job losses and impact safety in the workplace.
However, the government has argued that reorganisation is necessary to shore up French rail infrastructure as France and other European countries gear up for full-scale railway liberalisation in the coming years.
Protesters gathered outside the National Assembly in Paris and in other cities across France on Tuesday as lawmakers began debating the bill. They also briefly blocked the tracks at Paris's key Montparnasse train station and declared their intention to extend the strike to Wednesday.
In the afternoon, up to 300 strikers forced their way into the office of the France 3 public television channel in the bustling eastern city of Lyon, demanding a live TV debate with Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier, but later left when their demands were not met.
Slight improvement in services
The two striking unions, the CGT and Sud-Rail, said Wednesday they would extend the industrial action for another 24 hours, taking it into Thursday.
A number of unions have also called on their members to stage a protest in Paris on Thursday morning in support of the striking railway workers.
Traffic on intercity, regional and high-speed lines remained disrupted on Wednesday, though the SNCF said there was an improvement in the number of services being offered on certain lines.
Around seven in 10 high-speed TGV services were running in the east, two out of three in the north and four out of 10 in the southeast.
Half of intercity services were running, while six out of ten regional train services were in operation, said the SNCF.
Public fury at strike
Although labour disputes are not uncommon in France, this rail strike has particularly annoyed the normally sympathetic French. A poll published in French daily Le Parisien on Tuesday showed that 76 percent of people were opposed to the action, which has already cost SNCF at least 80 million euros ($108 million).
Even the labour-friendly Socialist government is breaking a long-held French taboo and is openly criticising the striking unions.
The strike has crippled the country’s rail network over the past week, which has also landed during the country’s peak tourist season.
SNCF has taken costly measures, including hiring thousands of extra workers, to ease the impact of the strike, which has affected not only holidaymakers and commuters, but also French secondary school students taking their critical final exams this week.
The parliamentary debate over the controversial reform is expected to end on Thursday.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
Date created : 2014-06-17