Almost half of French rail operator SNCF's train drivers and staff have begun months of strikes, on a day French media have dubbed "Black Tuesday." The strikes are expected to affect about 4.5 million commuters.
The four main rail unions have called for workers to take two days of strikes every five days until June 28, unless Macron ditches plans for an overhaul on debt-riddled state rail operator SNCF before it is opened up to competition as required by European Union law.
Extent of the walkouts
— About 4.5 million commuters are expected to be affected by the strikes.
— About 48 percent of rail workers and other SNCF staff were expected to participate in Tuesday's strike, according to SNCF management. Among train drivers the participation rate was put at 77 percent.
— Only one high-speed TGV train out of eight is scheduled to run and one regional train out of five, which will result in employees across the country struggling to get to work.
— One in every three trains to Germany was to operate and three-quarters of Eurostar trains to London and Brussels will run. Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands will operate almost normally, but there will be none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland.
— Air France, garbage collectors and some energy workers were also striking in separate walkouts.
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As the strikes got underway on Tuesday, French Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said the government would stick to its position in talks with the unions, adding that she believed some were seeking to fan the flames of confrontation.
"I hear that there may be fears on the part of the railway workers. These fears are not justified and they are being fueled," said Borne. "Some people very clearly want to politicize the debate."
SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy warned entire lines could be closed as a result.
"I want to be very clear ... the strike action will no doubt be widely adhered to and his going to make the lives of a lot of people very difficult," Pepy said in a radio interview.
Union chief Emmanuel Grondein said the strike was necessary and had a wider purpose. "We're defending the French public service, not just rail workers," said Grondein, head of Sud Rail, one of the four unions behind the action.
Dogmatism or necessary changes?
The unions accuse President Macron, a centrist ex-investment banker, of seeking to "destroy the public railways through pure ideological dogmatism," and are concerned that plans to turn the SNCF into a publicly listed company, even with the state owning 100 percent of shares, could eventually lead to the rail operator being privatized -- something the government denies.
Macron, who has already introduced unpopular labor reforms, has said that SNCF, which is currently in 46.6 billion euros ($57.5 billion) of debt, needs to make major changes as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020. Macron's government says it is 30 percent more expensive to run a train in France than elsewhere in Europe. The overhaul would involve stripping new SNCF hires of special rail workers' status of guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement.
lw, rc/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters)