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France braces for mass rail strikes

© AFP/File | French rail unions are launching a three-month rolling strike at state rail operator SNCF

PARIS (AFP) - 

France braced Monday for the start of three months of rolling rail strikes, the first in a series of walkouts affecting everything from energy to garbage collection as President Emmanuel Macron's reform agenda comes up against resistance.

Staff at state rail operator SNCF will walk 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 set to operate 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 the Thalys train towards Belgium and the Netherlands will operate almost as normal, but there will be none at all towards Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

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.

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 say the centrist ex-investment banker intends to "destroy the public railways through pure ideological dogmatism".

His changes "will fix neither the debt issue or that of dysfunction" in the railway system", they said in their strike announcement.

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.

- Moment of truth for 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 privatising 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.

As with his reforms loosening France's rigid labour code, Macron plans to push through the SNCF overhaul by executive order to avoid lengthy parliamentary debate, a move his critics have blasted as undemocratic.

Unions have so far failed to block any of his changes despite several mass protests against reforms that include plans to scrap 120,000 public sector jobs.

Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, has called for different forces opposed to Macron's agenda -- including pensioners and student groups -- to "bring their fights together".

But analysts say the coming walkouts will be a major test of how much weight France's once fearsome trade unions still carry.

Macron's victory virtually swept away the Socialist Party, long the political champion of the labour movement, and union membership now stands at just over 11 percent in France -- one of the lowest levels in the EU.

- 'France is tired' -

Political expert Philippe Braud said Macron could succeed in reforming France where previous presidents have failed by methodically taking on one reform after another.

With opinion divided between "resignation" and "deep conviction that things must move forward," Braud said, "the planets were aligned: So many reforms have been aborted over the past 20 years".

The government has so far had public opinion on its side over the rail reforms.

"No one can understand why the rail unions are unleashing a long and punishing strike when the government is engaging in a dialogue," said Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne.

But an Ifop survey on Sunday showed sympathy growing for SNCF staff, with 46 percent backing the strike, up four points from two weeks ago.

"France is tired," said an editorial in the regional Sud-Ouest newspaper. "Who will get tired the quickest? The trade unions clinging to their last bastion? Or the ambitious young president determined to turn a page?"

© 2018 AFP