French PM stands firm on rail reform as strike goes on

PARIS, June 16 Mon Jun 16, 2014 3:37am EDT

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PARIS, June 16 (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Manuel Valls refused on Monday to yield to the demands of striking rail workers seeking to derail a planned reform of the sector as their stoppage entered a six day.

The strike is one of the longest France has seen in years and has disrupted services since last Tuesday, testing the resolve of President Francois Hollande's government's to push through sometimes unpopular reforms.

Hardline unions CGT and SUD are against plans, intended to prepare the sector ahead of EU reforms aimed at bringing more competition to European transport routes, while less militant unions have dropped their opposition and returned to work.

The government and state-owned SNCF have had to mobilise special train and bus services to ensure students can attend annual end-of-school exams beginning on Monday for hundreds of thousands of students across the nation.

"This strike is irresponsible in the country's (current) state, on a day of exams. It's time to stop this strike," Valls said on France Info radio.

Insisting the government would push ahead with the reform, he said that he was "no strike-breaker" and would not force unions to end the strike, which he said they had a constitutional right to carry out.

Parliament is due to begin debating a bill on Tuesday that would bring the SNCF rail operator and RFF network owner into the same holding company, although their operations would be kept separate.

Hollande's Socialist government says the move would give the sector a more coherent structure as France and other European countries prepare for liberalisation.

Unions fear that working conditions would suffer and want SNCF and RFF to be fully merged into one entity as they were prior to 1997. They also want the state to take on 40 billion euros ($55 billion) in debt owed by the firms. ($1 = 0.7345 Euros) (Reporting by Leigh Thomas; editing by Mark John)

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