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Tear gas, clashes: France fed up with strike

Policemen use teargas to disperse striking workers of the French state-run rail operator SNCF, backed by French unions CGT and Sud-Rail, demonstrating against reform plans proposed by the French government on June 17, 2014 in Paris. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR

PARIS: Even France may be getting fed up with strikes.

A week into a nationwide train strike that has tangled traffic and stranded tourists, police fired tear gas Tuesday at protesting rail workers. Two polls suggest passengers have little sympathy for the train workers’ lament. Even the labor-friendly Socialist government is breaking a long-held French taboo and is openly criticizing the striking unions.

The strike has caused some of the worst disruption to the country’s rail network in years – and heated up as the reform bill went to the lower house of Parliament for debate Tuesday. The bill would unite the SNCF train operator with the RFF railway network, paving the way to opening up railways to competition.

Workers fear the reform will mean job losses and hurt the quality of France’s extensive and often-vaunted train network. The government says the reform is needed to better streamline the railway’s administration, as France and other European countries gear up for full-scale railway liberalization in coming years.

With sentiment piling up against them, unions aren’t backing down.

Several hundred workers staged a protest Tuesday near the National Assembly in Paris, waving red union flags and demanding that the bill be delayed or changed. In northern Lille, protesters briefly occupied City Hall.

The protesters blocked cars and tried to push past police to approach the parliament building, firing flares and throwing bottles. Officers responded with tear gas and batons and wrestled a few protesters to the ground. Even in a country where the right to strike is almost sacred, the Socialist leadership and their conservative opponents are losing patience.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the violence “unacceptable” and defended the reform bill in parliament Tuesday. A day earlier, in very unusual public criticism, he said “this strike is useless and irresponsible given the situation in the country.”

Last week, French President François Hollande called on rail unions to bring an end to the strike, even if he has no power to stop it. The right to strike is guaranteed by the French constitution, with minor restrictions for transport workers, who must give 48-hours’ notice of their intention to strike.

Two polls this week showed that most respondents oppose the strike and support reform of the rail system.

Matthieu Chapuis, a 27-year-old railway worker at the Montparnasse protest, sought to dispel the image of train workers as privileged public servants clinging to generous benefits.

“I work three Sundays out of four,” he told AP. “I am paid 1,600 euros a month to toil around-the-clock in three shifts. I don’t know if people realize that. I shunt trains, and on top of that, if I make a mistake, I am criminally responsible.”

“If there are dead people, I go to jail.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 18, 2014, on page 11.

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Summary

PARIS: Even France may be getting fed up with strikes.

A week into a nationwide train strike that has tangled traffic and stranded tourists, police fired tear gas Tuesday at protesting rail workers.

The strike has caused some of the worst disruption to the country's rail network in years – and heated up as the reform bill went to the lower house of Parliament for debate Tuesday.

Last week, French President Francois Hollande called on rail unions to bring an end to the strike, even if he has no power to stop it.

Matthieu Chapuis, a 27-year-old railway worker at the Montparnasse protest, sought to dispel the image of train workers as privileged public servants clinging to generous benefits.


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