Police clash with protesting rail workers as France loses patience with weeklong train strike

PARIS – Even France may be getting fed up with strikes.

A week into a nationwide train strike that has tangled traffic and stranded tourists, police fired tear gas Tuesday at protesting rail workers. Two polls suggest passengers have little sympathy for the train workers’ lament. Even the labour-friendly Socialist government is breaking a long-held French taboo and is openly criticizing the striking unions.

The strike has caused some of the worst disruption to the country’s rail network in years — and heated up as the reform bill went to the lower house of Parliament for debate Tuesday. The bill would unite the SNCF train operator with the RFF railway network, which would pave the way to opening up railways to competition.

Workers fear the reform will mean job losses and hurt the quality of France’s extensive and often-vaunted train network. The government says the reform is needed to better streamline the railway’s administration, as France and other European countries gear up for full-scale railway liberalization in coming years.

With sentiment piling up against them, unions aren’t backing down.

Several hundred workers staged a protest Tuesday near the National Assembly on Paris’ Left Bank, waving red union flags and demanding that the bill be delayed or changed. In northern Lille, protesters briefly occupied City Hall.

The protesters blocked cars and tried to push past police to approach the parliament building, firing flares and throwing bottles. Officers responded with tear gas and batons and wrestled a few protesters to the ground. Then protesters marched onto train tracks and set off flares on the tracks at Paris’ busy Montparnasse station, which links travellers with cities across western and southwestern France.

Even in a country where the right to strike is almost sacred, the Socialist leadership and their conservative opponents are losing patience.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the violence “unacceptable” and defended the reform bill in Parliament on Tuesday. A day earlier, in very unusual public criticism, Valls said “this strike is useless and irresponsible given the situation in the country.”

Last week, French President François Hollande called on rail unions to bring an end to the strike, even if he has no power to stop it. The right to strike is guaranteed by the French constitution, with minor restrictions for transport workers, who must give 48-hours’ notice of their intention to strike.

The strike began last Wednesday, and while only a minority of workers is taking part, it has disrupted travel on trains and commuter lines across France. About a third of trains were cancelled nationwide Tuesday. The strike has not affected international lines such as the Eurostar train from Paris to London, but it has caused problems for international travellers using the commuter rail to and from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The strike further angered the public in Week Two as it ran into the start of high school baccalaureate exams Monday. The SNCF had to reorganize its service to make sure students get priority places on packed trains and buses.

Two polls this week showed that most respondents oppose the strike and support reform of the rail system.

Matthieu Chapuis, a 27-year-old railway worker at the Montparnasse protest, sought to dispel the image of train workers as privileged public servants clinging to generous benefits.

“I work three Sundays out of four,” he told The Associated Press. “I am paid 1,600 euros a month to toil around-the-clock in three shifts. I don’t know if people realize that, I shunt trains, and on top of that, if I make a mistake, I am criminally responsible.”

“If there are dead people, I go to jail.”

The government’s stance is familiar to the opposition conservatives. Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon of the UMP party said in a statement that “SNCF customers are hostages of a minority of strikers who don’t care about the public interest.”

SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy estimated Monday that the strike had cost the company between 80 million and 100 million euros.


Michel Euler and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.