Striking French rail staff up pressure on government

Paris (AFP) –


French rail workers sought to up the ante in weeks of strikes Monday, slashing the number of trains running as the government insists it will not back down in the standoff.

Monday marked the 18th day of strikes since early April against President Emmanuel Macron's overhaul aimed at making the SNCF, France's heavily indebted state rail operator, more competitive.

Fewer and fewer rail staff have been taking part in the strikes as the weeks have gone on, and the Unsa union had said it was "vital to deal a heavy blow" to pressure the government into making concessions.

In the southern port city of Marseille, traffic came to a complete standstill for several hours after a power cut which the SNCF said was likely an "act of sabotage".

An overhead cable was also cut between Paris and the northwestern region of Normandy, cutting off traffic, though there was no indication that those on strike were behind it.

A third of high-speed TGV and suburban trains were running and a fifth of regional services in what SNCF management described as "heavy disruption" for France's 4.5 million daily rail passengers.

Despite falling short of what unions billed as "a day without trains", the scale of the disruption was back in line with that seen at the start of the walkout, compared to recent strikes days when as many as half have run as normal.

In Marseille, students joined forces with rail workers to block the arrival and departure of trains on the platforms at Saint-Charles station, a major hub.

"They've blocked everything. We understand why," passenger Romeo Andre told AFP. "But at some point you have to stop penalising others."

Macron wants to deny new SNCF recruits historic benefits such as early retirement and a guaranteed job for life, part of plans to cut its operating costs as European rail travel opens to competition in the coming years.

Rail workers object to this, as well as plans to turn the SNCF into a joint-stock company whose shares would be held by the state -- a move they see as a first step towards privatisation despite government denials.

The strikes are set to continue two days out of every five until June 28.

But they have been easing, with just 14.5 percent of SNCF staff taking part in last Wednesday's walkout.

Opinion polls suggest a majority of French voters back the reforms. The lower house of parliament has already given them the green light, and the Senate is set to vote on them this month.

On Monday, unions launched a consultation of the SNCF's 147,000 staff on whether or not they back the government's plans.

SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy has dismissed the consultation, which will run until May 21, as having "no legitimacy", but unions say it will help them decide how to move forward.