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Strike causes French railway chaos, with more to come

Strike causes French railway chaos, with more to come

"This little melody being sung of "privileged railway workers" is intolerable", said Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union.

Worldwide train services also face disruption: no trains were set to run between France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

In the first day of mobilization, the company had to cancel most of its program and circulate only 12 percent of high-speed trains, 13 percent of the inter-city, 28 percent of the trains in the Paris region and 30 percent of regional ones.

It will be a major test of the French trade unions' clout. The government said there were no plans to privatize SNCF, which is 45 billion euros ($56 billion) in debt, according to Reuters.

At the Gare de Lyon station in eastern Paris, platforms were so packed that commuters spilled over onto the tracks as they waited for infrequent trains. High-speed Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands were operating nearly as normal, but there were no services towards Switzerland, Spain or Italy.

Farid Hachelef, a 32-year-old who works in construction, said he had spent the night in Paris with a friend rather than trying to travel in from the northern suburb of Argenteuil, "otherwise, I would never make it".

The "cheminot" status effectively guarantees jobs for life and other benefits, in keeping with the image of France's railways as an essential pillar of the country's infrastructure and its public services.

Pensioners, students and public sector workers have also taken to the streets in recent weeks protesting against far-reaching reforms by Macron, who insists he was elected on a mandate for change. There are 36 days of strikes planned at the train operator over the coming months.




While Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said labour unions were making the reform plans into a political issue.

"I want to be very clear. the strike action will no doubt be widely adhered to and is going to make the lives of a lot of people very hard", SNCF boss Guillaume Pepy said in a radio interview, as quoted by Reuters.

Workers now enjoy generous contract and benefits, but the French government is looking to reform contracts for new workers.

Macron wants to transform heavily indebted SNCF into a profit-maker.

The unions say the debt was caused by excessive investment in TGV trains at the expense of everyday connections and accuse Macron of paving the way for privatisation.

The government has sought to ease tensions with assurances that the arrival of foreign competition on French rail tracks, pencilled in for gradual rollout from 2020, can be delayed. One in every three trains to Germany was to operate, while the Eurostar service connecting London, Paris and Brussels was down to three out of every four trains, the SNCF said.

What remains unclear is whether Macron might offer further concessions to get the unions to back down before the strikes bite. The Communist-rooted CGT wants the industrial action to spread to other sectors but has so far seen limited support.

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