France train chaos as labour unrest spreads

Paris (AFP) - Transport chaos hit France on Wednesday as rail workers downed tools, and a tug of war between government and unions showed no sign of abating ahead of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

The turmoil was set to drag on Thursday with staff at railway operator SNCF vowing to continue their strike and subway workers and employees at nuclear power stations also planning walk outs.

Dozens of trains were cancelled as SNCF workers launched their eighth strike in three months for better pay and working conditions.

"It's a nightmare today -- even more than the other strike days," said Christine, an SNCF worker surveying the chaos at Ormesson station in the Paris suburbs, where commuters were struggling to squeeze on to one of the few trains that had shown up.

The strike has piled further pressure on the deeply unpopular Socialist government, which has been besieged by months of protests and work stoppages over a controversial labour reform bill.

It has also raised fears of transport chaos during the Euro 2016 football tournament which kicks off on June 10, with one Air France pilots' union announcing a strike on June 11.

Philippe Martinez, head of the powerful CGT union, said the aim was not to cripple the football tournament, but accused the government of refusing to negotiate.

He said this week would see "the strongest mobilisation in three months".

Fresh demonstrations were also planned for Thursday in cities across France including Paris, Marseille, Toulouse and Nantes.

Since March, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests that have frequently turned violent, while about a fifth of France's petrol pumps ran dry last week as CGT activists blockaded refineries and depots.

Energy group Total faces losses of "tens of millions of dollars per week" from blockades at its five refineries, according to an internal report seen by AFP.

Although most have been cleared, workers at an oil terminal in the northern port of Le Havre -- which supplies kerosene to Paris's two main airports -- extended their blockade into Wednesday.

And while the threat of a strike by air traffic controllers was lifted, workers from 16 of France's 19 nuclear power stations voted to go on strike on Thursday.

- 'Weighing on our economy' -

Despite the disruption to their daily lives, 46 percent of French people still support the unions' calls, an opinion poll in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed Sunday.

But the protests have cast a shadow over preparations for the month-long Euro championship, which is expected to attract over a million foreign visitors and has already been dogged by security fears following last year's jihadist attacks in France.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls decried the "waste" caused by the strikes.

"This conflict is weighing on our economy at a time when the actions of the government are allowing a rebound, growth and a fall in unemployment," he told parliament.

SNCF said 17 percent of its staff were on strike Wednesday, leading to more than two-thirds of inter-city trains and nearly half of high-speed TGV services being cancelled.

Rail travellers were told to brace for further disruptions on Thursday, although the Paris metro was expected to run a normal service.

- 'Law favours bosses' -

The French government says its new labour law is aimed at reducing stubbornly high unemployment and making the struggling economy more business-friendly.

But unions are furious that the government rammed the reforms through the lower house of parliament without a vote, and have called for another national day of strikes in two weeks when the bill goes before the Senate.

They say the law favours bosses by letting them set their own working conditions for new employees, rather than being bound to industry-wide agreements, allowing companies to cut jobs during hard times and go beyond the 35-hour work week.

Despite often violent demonstrations, President Francois Hollande has refused to scrap the legislation and has criticised the unions for tarnishing France's image.