Tear gas, clashes: France fed up with train strike
By Sylvie Corbet, AP
June 19, 2014, 12:00 am TWN
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 labor-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 travelers 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.