France seeks to stem labour disruption before Euro soccer kickoff

By Brian Love and Ingrid Melander.  PARIS (Reuters) – France’s government moved on Tuesday to calm protests against labour law reform ahead of the month-long European soccer championship, announcing a pay rise for school teachers and pledging to speed up reorganisation talks at the SNCF railways.Google+

Transilien trains, the suburban railway service of French state-owned railway company SNCF, are parked at a SNCF depot station in Charenton-le-Pont near Paris, France, May 31, 2016 as railway workers will start a national railway strike on Tuesday evening. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Transilien trains, the suburban railway service of French state-owned railway company SNCF, are parked at a SNCF depot station in Charenton-le-Pont near Paris, France, May 31, 2016 as railway workers will start a national railway strike on Tuesday evening. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The Socialist government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls is urging the hardline CGT union that is leading a rail strike as of Tuesday evening to propose ways out of the confrontation over a labour reform bill that will make hiring and firing easier.

President Francois Hollande says he will not back down on  key provisions of the proposed reform.

But he acted on Monday to prevent a range of grievances coalescing into a broader protest movement by restoring slashed funding for research and pledging public money to settle a dispute over performing artists’ unemployment insurance.

Hollande also hinted in an interview with Sud-Ouest newspaper he would announce a softening of cuts in state financing for local authorities when he addresses a congress of mayors this week.

In moves on Tuesday, the government announced a pay rise for school teachers worth one billion euros (765.03 million pound) by 2019 and, with a rail strike set to start later in the day, said it had intervened over the heads of management of the SNCF state railways to speed up negotiations on a reorganisation.

“We need to accelerate things,” Transport Minister Alain Vidalies told France Inter radio, referring to a dispute which has poisoned labour relations at the SNCF.

SNCF management had been asked to put final reorganisation proposals to unions by next Monday to help clear the air.

The rail stoppage and calls for strikes in other transport sectors later this week have raised the spectre of chaos when France hosts the Euro 2016 soccer tournament from June 10 to July 10, when some 2.5 million fans are expected in stadiums, including 1.5 million foreign visitors.

While Hollande rejected the CGT’s demand to withdraw the labour reform, his ministers said they hoped to defuse the conflict if CGT chief Philippe Martinez showed willing.

“We’ve been hearing in the last few hours that Mr Martinez is saying ‘Let’s talk’,” Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri told RTL radio. “I am waiting for proposals from the CGT.”

Prime Minister Valls insisted his government would not gut the reform of key elements such as a clause that gives firms more scope to agree inhouse deals on pay and conditions, saying that beyond that, “My door is open”.

On Monday evening, Martinez said in a debate on RTL radio: “Let’s talk again”, adding there was “no pre-condition”.

Valls also condemned comments by employers’ leader Pierre Gattaz who accused the CGT in an interview with daily Le Monde of behaving like “thugs” and “terrorists”.

RAIL STRIKE THREAT

Railway workers were being called out on strike from 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Tuesday for what the CGT and other smaller unions have warned will be a rolling stoppage. But the reformist CFDT union, the largest by membership ahead of the CGT, withdrew its strike call after the government signalled concessions.

SNCF said the strike was expected to halt 40 percent of high-speed TGV trains and up to two-thirds of services on other lines and disrupt some Thalys services to Belgium and the Netherlands but not Eurostar trains to London.

Vidalies said calls for stoppages on the RER and Metro urban transport networks from June 2 were unlikely to be as disruptive because the CGT had less clout on those services.

Pilots at Air France announced on Monday that they too were ready to strike over planned salary curbs but had set no date. Air controllers are also planning stoppages from Friday.

Strikes in other areas have brought several oil refineries to a halt but oil industry federation chief Francis Duseux said car fuel shortages seemed to be easing with around one in five petrol stations short of fuel.

Some 90,000 police and security teams are being mobilised to keep fans safe during a month-long soccer fiesta. France remains under emergency rules after attacks in which Islamist militants killed 130 people in Paris last November.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Simon Carraud; Writing By Brian Love; Editing by Paul Taylor and Richard Balmforth)

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