French rail strikes raise fears over Euro 2016

Paris (AFP) - France was bracing for fresh transport chaos Tuesday with railway workers striking just 10 days before Euro 2016 in a bitter labour dispute that has sparked months of protests.

The rolling train strike called by the powerful CGT union is expected to affect around half of national and regional services by the time it takes full effect on Wednesday.

That will be followed by industrial action on the Paris Metro from Thursday, with Air France pilots also voting in principle for a lengthy strike at some point in June, when Euro 2016 is in full swing.

The protests and strikes have cast a shadow over the football championships, which begin on June 10 and are expected to attract millions of foreign visitors.

Neighbouring Belgium also faced growing disruption from a public sector workers' strike on Tuesday, with train services badly hit and uncollected rubbish piling up in Brussels.

Despite three months of stoppages and sometimes violent demonstrations against labour reforms in France, President Francois Hollande has refused to bend to the unions' demands to scrap the legislation.

The measures, which would make it easier to hire and fire employees, "will not be withdrawn", a defiant Hollande told Sud Ouest newspaper.

"The text assures the best performance for businesses and offers new rights to employees," he said.

"I consider it necessary to see it through to its conclusion."

Despite the expected transport chaos, the biggest threat to Euro 2016 "remains terrorism", Hollande said.

Underlining the point, some 500 police and rescue workers staged a mock terror attack on Tuesday outside the Stade de France national stadium in Paris, where the opening match and final will be played.

- 'In the government's hands' -

With the tournament looming, CGT boss Philippe Martinez said the situation was in the government's hands.

"We're not going to stop people going to see the football matches, but the government has to be prepared to discuss. Everything is in its hands."

But the ruling Socialists hit, saying the CGT was embarrassing the country.

"The image of a paralysed country conforms to the worst French-bashing cliches," a party spokesman said.

Paris tourism chiefs agree, fearing that footage of tear gas and clashes between demonstrators and police will hit visitor numbers, which are already sharply down in the wake of last year's jihadist attacks.

The train strike, which starts later on Tuesday, was to affect 40 percent of the high-speed TGV trains and half of suburban services in the Paris region, Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said.

Air travellers will also likely face cancellations and delays after Air France pilots voted Monday to consider strike action for at least six days in June in a separate dispute over productivity targets.

Petrol deliveries were picking up pace though, following the end of union blockades of fuel depots.

Meanwhile the CGT's Martinez said the union would take legal action against the head of the MEDEF employers' federation for defamation after he accused the unions on Monday of behaving like "terrorists".

Martinez said Pierre Gattaz's accusation amounted to a "call for insurrection, or at the very least violence against the CGT".

- Belgium strikes over austerity -

Belgium was severely disrupted on Tuesday after staff at schools, city transport networks, airports and government offices downed tools in protest at the centre-right government's austerity plans, including raising the retirement age.

Train services were badly hit in the south of the country while less than half were operating in Flanders in the north, the SNCB rail operator said. High-speed trains to Germany were halted and services to France were also reduced.

The focus of the anger in France is new legislation aimed at injecting more flexibility into the labour market by making it easier to sack employees and hire new ones.

Companies would also be able to negotiate terms and conditions with their workers rather than be bound by industry-wide agreements.

But unions say the moves will erode job security and fail to bring down unemployment, which is stuck at around 10 percent.

Unions are furious that the government rammed the reforms through the lower house of parliament without a vote. They have called for another national day of rallies and strikes on June 14, the day the Senate begins examining the law.

Hollande is considering seeking a second term in next year's presidential elections despite polls showing he is one of France's most unpopular leaders since World War II.