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France Avoided an Air Traffic Controller Strike but Its Trains Are Still a Mess

June 2, 2016, 10:17 AM UTC
Photograph by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD AFP/Getty Images

Strikes halved French train services on Thursday but attempts by the militant CGT union to broaden protests against labor reforms to air traffic control and the Paris underground ahead of a European soccer tournament appeared to have failed.

Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said traffic was normal on the Paris Metro, unions other than the CGT had called off an air controllers’ strike and the government hoped to avert disruption of the Euro 2016 soccer championship.

CGT-led stoppages were also disrupting refineries and nuclear power plants but the union looked increasingly isolated in its efforts to force the Socialist government to withdraw a labour law reform that would make hiring and firing easier.

“There’ll be no disruption of the airways this weekend,” said Vidalies, who said four of the five unions who had given notice of a June 3-5 strike had agreed to call it off.

Six out of 10 high-speed TGV train connections were operating and other inter-city links were cut to a third of normal, said the state-owned SNCF railway company, a stronghold of the CGT union, which is one of France’s two largest unions. But a smaller union was expected to call off its participation in the strike after securing government assurances of help with the SNCF’s 50 billion euro ($56.04 billion) debt.

President Francois Hollande has rejected CGT demands that he scrap a bill that the union says will undermine labor protection by giving companies more scope to negotiate in-house deals on pay and conditions.

His government, which insists the reform is needed to help combat a jobless rate of 10 percent, has been working flat out to defuse sectoral tensions and prevent various grievances coalescing into one big national protest.


An Ifop opinion poll for Le Figaro magazine suggested public sympathy for the strike is ebbing, with 60% saying the CGT was abusing the right to strike and trying to blockade the country illegally, while 40% think the opposite. Previous polls had shown the strike had majority support.

Earlier this week the government announced pay rises for state-employed teachers and pledged to restore scrapped public spending for research.

It also intervened to force SNCF management go some way towards meeting union demands that rest-time be protected in a reorganization under negotiation ahead of a Europe-wide opening of passenger rail services to private competition from 2020.

With presidential and legislative elections a year away, the concessions to teachers could help repair damaged relations with a sector generally sympathetic to the ruling Socialists.

The more immediate concern is to avert serious disruption during the Euro 2016 cup, when some 2.5 million people are expected to attend dozens of matches across the country, with 1.5 million fans expected to come from outside France.

Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri urged the CGT, which has threatened to cut power supplies to the headquarters of the Medef employers’ federation, to play a more constructive role.

“I urge them to show some form of economic patriotism. Just when the economy is picking up, we shouldn’t weaken it,” she said in an interview on i>TELE news television channel.