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France rail strike for seventh day as government prepares reform bill

France's rail strike is set to go into a seventh day as the government refuses to set aside its reform program to reduce debt and prepare for European competition. It is the longest transport strike in years.

Head of the state-owned rail company SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, said the strike had so far cost up to 100 million euros ($135 million) while services on the high-speed TGV connections were cut by 50 percent and only 40 percent of inter-city trains were operating. It is the longest strike since 2001.

On Monday the SNCF had to organize special services to make sure hundreds of thousands of students were given priority places as they travelled to take their philosophy and French examinations in the Baccalaureate, France's national secondary-school diploma. Only a quarter of scheduled trains were running on Paris region lines.

"This strike is irresponsible in the country's (current) state, on a day of exams. It's time to stop this strike," the socialist government's Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on France Info radio on Monday.

Reform bill debate

Parliament starts to debate a bill on Tuesday to bring the SNCF and network owner RFF into the same holding company, although their operations would be kept separate.

The rail strike began on June 10 and was prompted by plans for the reforms aimed at tackling the rail network's 40 billion euro debt and preparing for European Union reforms aimed at bringing more competition to European transport routes.

Some rail unions have signed up to the reforms but the CGT and Sud-Rail unions have rejected a deal with the government, saying they would lead to job losses without reducing the debt. The percentage of rail workers on strike was 14.7 percent on Monday, half the level it was at the start of the strike last week.

Unions have expressed fears that working conditions would suffer and they want the SNCF and RFF to be fully merged into one entity as they were prior to 1997.

The government says the reforms would give the sector a more coherent structure as France and other European countries prepare for competition in transport routes.

jm/slk (AFP, Reuters)