France: strikes, trash taint image as it hosts soccer event

PARIS – The Paris mayor promised Friday to clear out city streets of garbage by the end of the day after 12 days of strikes that left a stinky mess — and further clouded France’s image as it hosts the European Championship soccer tournament.

Unions remain determined to keep up strikes at the main Paris waste incineration plant, on commuter trains taking fans to the opening match Friday, and on Air France flights starting Saturday. The strikes are part of months of nationwide labour action aimed at forcing the government to scrap a bill extending the work week and making layoffs easier.

A glimmer of hope emerged Friday in the national standoff, as the labour minister and leader of the powerful CGT union said they’d be ready to meet.

That would be a big relief for unpopular French President Francois Hollande, who needs for the soccer tournament to be a success. France had already been on high alert for potential extremist violence around the tournament — the country remains in a state of emergency after deadly attacks last year — and the strikes and protests have added to strain on the authorities.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo said the city has brought in dozens of extra garbage trucks over the past two days to clear the accumulated rubbish, which is getting especially smelly in the warm, muggy weather.

“All the garbage will be collected today,” she told BFM television Friday.

The challenge will be finding a place to dump it: Striking workers have blocked the main waste plant serving the city for several days.

Baptiste Talbot of the CGT public workers union said Hidalgo’s prognosis was “a bit optimistic,” but didn’t object to the move. “We want to maintain pressure with the strike, but we are sensitive to sanitary issues,” he told The Associated Press.

He said the city could requisition private companies to clear streets normally served by public workers, and then truck the garbage to other regions or plants where workers are not on strike.

France’s transport chief, meanwhile, threatened to force striking train drivers back to work to ensure transport for fans attending the soccer tournament. Alain Vidalies, junior minister for transport, said on Europe-1 radio that the government could use a special measure to force workers back to the job if things worsen Saturday.

For Friday’s opening match, railway and subway authorities promised extra trains to bypass the strikers and carry tens of thousands of people to the stadium to watch France against Romania at the Stade de France.

About half of regional trains and 20 per cent of high-speed trains were cancelled Friday. Participation in the train strike appears to be diminishing in recent days, with only 7.1 per cent of workers taking part Friday, the SNCF management said in a statement.

Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri said Friday she was ready to meet with the head of the leftist CGT union at the forefront of the protest movement, according to French media reports. CGT tweeted that its leader, Philippe Martinez, is “disposed” to meet Khomri as soon as this weekend.

Euro 2016 organizer Jacques Lambert said the strikes have already stained the event, and are especially hurting working class fans who depend on public transport.

“The image given is not the one we wanted,” he said on France-Inter radio.