Europe News

French government urges end to strikes a week before Euro soccer

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s government, scrambling to end a wave of protests that could disrupt the Euro 2016 soccer championship, called on Friday for an end to a rail strike and told pilots their own plans to stop work were “irresponsible”.

An Arcelor Mittal steel worker, dressed in a protective work suit with a mask of Darth Vader from Star Wars, holds flares during a demonstration in protest of the government's proposed labour law reforms in Marseille, France, June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

An open-ended national stoppage on the railways went through its third day, reducing train services by about half, a week before the June 10 opening of a soccer tournament expected to draw some 2.5 million fans, many from abroad.

The disruption was compounded by the worst flooding in at least 30 years as the Seine river broke its banks in the center of Paris, forcing the closure of a commuter train line and a halt to barge transport on top of massive traffic jams on inundated motorways.

But there was little disruption to the Paris underground train network despite a strike call by the CGT union, and the SNCF rail company said the number of staff who stopped work on Friday fell to 10 percent, down from 17 percent on Wednesday.

Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said the government had satisfied union demands to protect rest periods for rail workers and help with the 50-billion-euro ($56 billion) debt of SNCF, saying the CGT should call off its action.

“It’s time to acknowledge the progress that’s been made and to get back to work,” the minister told RTL radio.

The Socialist government has intervened in internal talks on a reorganization of the SNCF, and made concessions to avert an air traffic controllers’ strike. But it faces a walkout by pilots at flag carrier Air France next week.

“This is irresponsible,” Vidalies said, adding that nobody would understand why a stoppage over planned pay curbs was timed to start one day into the month-long soccer festival.

Two unions representing the majority of Air France pilots have given notice of a strike from June 11 to 14 and said they might schedule further stoppages.


The CGT is also spearheading strikes at refineries and nuclear power stations in a bid to force the government to withdraw a reform of labor laws that would make hiring and firing easier.

French oil and gas company Total said it had ordered a resumption of operations at its 220,000 barrels-a-day Donges refinery after 94 percent of 650 staff voted to resume work after a two-week walkout. It said a majority of workers at its Grandpuits refinery also voted to stop striking.

However, CGT union officials have rejected the ballots at the two refineries. They said strikes will continue and operations will not resume.

The core protest overlaps with difficult negotiations to prepare the SNCF for Europe-wide liberalization of train traffic in 2020 and, at Air France, efforts to reduce costs.

The CGT and smaller labor and student unions which have been protesting since March against the labor law liberalization said they had proposals to make and wanted President Francois Hollande to meet them.

Petrol station shortages have eased after police forcibly removed pickets from fuel depots. But the CGT said another protest had shut down several large waste-treatment facilities around Paris, raising the threat of rubbish buildups.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said the CGT was waging an increasingly lonely war now that most other unions had dropped grievances. “If we gave into the CGT, a union which is in the minority even if I respect its history and struggle, it would no longer be possible to reform France,” he told l’Est Republicain.

Additional reporting by Simon Carraud and Bate Felix; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Mark Heinrich