* Government stands firm against railway strike
* Air traffic controllers, ferry workers begin strikes
* Performing artists threaten to disrupt arts festival
By Alexandria Sage
PARIS, June 24 (Reuters) - French lawmakers voted on Tuesday to reform the structure of the railway system, in a blow to striking unions worried the changes will threaten workers’ conditions, as new strikes broke out in the air traffic and ferry sectors.
By a 355 to 168 vote, deputies in the National Assembly voted “yes” to the restructure, which will bring state-owned train operator SNCF and track owner RFF into the same holding company while maintaining separate operations.
The vote marked a victory for the Socialist government of President Francois Hollande, who had instructed Prime Minister Manuel Valls to stand firm against two unions whose strike had aggravated commuters and caused city traffic jams since June 10.
The railway reform, which pre-dates Hollande’s tenure, is designed to prepare the system ahead of European Union moves to inject more competition into Europe’s transport routes.
To allay union concerns, deputies last week added amendments to protect the special status of workers - who retire on average at age 57 with generous pensions - and create a works council.
The Senate will begin to examine the bill on July 9, with its passage expected before parliament’s August break.
Despite the government’s tough stance, and dwindling momentum for the railway strike, discontent over proposed reforms is on the rise, with unions mobilising for new labour action on Tuesday just days before peak travel season, including strikes by air traffic controllers and ferry workers.
The air traffic controllers’ strike, due to last through Sunday, will affect about a quarter of flights, mostly at southern airports and from Paris to southern hubs and North Africa.
The UNSA-ICNA union, the third-largest air traffic controller union which called the strike, says government funds earmarked to modernise the sector over the next four years are insufficient.
The ferry strike is the third this year at the loss-making SNCM which connects France to Corsica and North Africa. Workers oppose plans to lay off 500 out of the 2,600-strong workforce and the company’s refusal to buy new ships.
SNCM is majority owned by Transdev, a joint venture between state-owned Caisse des Depots and environmental services company Veolia, which is hoping to reduce its stake. The state owns one quarter directly.
Meanwhile, farmers scuffled with riot police on Tuesday after they set up a pyre made of pallets and straw in the middle of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, blocking traffic.
“Overtaxed farmers, unemployment assured,” read signs held by the group of over 250 farmers, who oppose a pesticide ban and other planned measures they say will hurt their competitiveness.
The National Assembly’s economic sub-committee was due later on Tuesday to give a second reading of a bill that would ban pesticides from being used within 200 metres of certain “sensitive” public places, such as schools.
Ongoing still are protests by performers and other casual arts workers who oppose a new contract they say will make it impossible for the most precarious to eke out a living.
The CGT union has threatened a “massive” strike on July 4 to disrupt the prestigious Avignon Theatre Festival’s opening day. (Reporting by Alexandria Sagel; Editing by John Irish and Robin Pomeroy)