French TGV trains (high speed train) are parked at a SNCF depot station in Charenton-le-Pont near Paris, France, May 31, 2016 as railway workers from the France's rail-operator SNCF will start a national railway strike on Tuesday evening. REUTERS/Charles Platiau(reuters_tickers)
By Sophie Louet and Paul Taylor
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Striking rail workers halted about half of French train services on Wednesday in a dispute over working time as a standoff between the militant CGT union and the Socialist government over a proposed labour law reform escalated.
CGT members voted to start rolling strikes at the country's 19 nuclear power plants from Wednesday evening to press demands to scrap the labour bill, and airline pilots announced a work stoppage late next week in a separate dispute over pay curbs.
That would coincide with the first days of the Euro 2016 soccer championship in France.
Tension mounted between the CGT and the Medef employers' federation, with the union urging energy workers to cut power supplies to the bosses' Paris headquarters.
The SNCF state railway said six out of 10 high-speed TGV trains were running, along with one-third of other inter-city services and half of regional trains. Eurostar trains to Britain were not affected, while 75 percent of services to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland were running, and about 40 percent to Spain and Germany.
Three of the four rail unions called their members out on an open-ended strike over a planned reorganisation even though the government has intervened to press SNCF management to protect train drivers' weekends off. Managers say that concession could make the heavily indebted company uncompetitive when it has to open up to private competition in 2020 under EU rules.
A letter sent by Transport Minister Alain Vidalies to the UNSA trade union said the government was determined to find a solution to ease the 50 billion euros debt burden of the SNCF state railway and will present possible solutions to parliament in August.
SNCF said 17 percent of its staff were on strike, up slightly from a previous strike last week, and forecast similar levels of traffic for Thursday. The CGT is also on strike at oil refineries and one-fifth of petrol stations are short of fuel.
The number two pilots' union at flag carrier Air France <AIRF.PA> said it would give notice of plans to stage a two-to-four day strike from the end of next week in a separate dispute over measures that will reduce some pilots' pay. It said it would coordinate action with the main pilots' union, SNPL.
The airline declined comment.
One piece of good news for French authorities was a decision by the main SNCTA air traffic controllers union on Wednesday evening to lift its notice of a strike from June 3-5 over working conditions.
The nuclear plant stoppages will reduce output and force the EDF power company to import electricity from EU neighbours.
The Socialist government played down the disruption and stuck to its refusal to withdraw the planned labour reform, which is designed to make hiring and firing easier and to encourage negotiations on flexibility at company level.
"France loves to give this image of itself as a sort of permanent drama, but that's not the reality. France is not at a standstill," Jean-Marie Le Guen, secretary of state for relations with parliament, told Radio Classique.
The government has pulled out its chequebook to settle a series of sectoral disputes this week in an effort to prevent them coalescing into a nationwide protest movement ahead of next week's start of the soccer tournament.
CGT leader Philippe Martinez told LCP television his union had no intention of disrupting the soccer championship and urged the government to negotiate. But he also insisted it scrap a key article of the bill that would give company-level deals precedence over sector-wide agreements on pay and conditions.
"There's no question of blocking the Euros," Martinez said. "It's not transport strikes that will block the Euros."
The conservative opposition vowed to amend the labour bill in the Senate, where it has a majority, to make it tougher. The government can overrule the upper house when the legislation returns to the lower house for a final reading in July.
Opposition leaders said they would try to restore provisions dropped from the government's initial draft that would cap the compensation labour courts can award for unfair dismissal.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Bate Felix and Cyril Altmeyer and Dominique Vidalon; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Tom Heneghan)