French unions disrupt trains

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The Independent Online
The Socialist-led French government yesterday faced its first real challenge by the unions since its election four months ago. Rail services throughout France, and metro services in Paris, were seriously disrupted by railway unions demanding shorter hours, higher pay and the creation of new jobs.

Strikes reduced main-line trains by half and Metro trains on some lines to one in three. The action was intended to bring pressure on a conference of the government, unions and employers, starting tomorrow, which will discuss ways of reducing unemployment, currently 12.5 per cent.

The conference will focus especially on the vague campaign promise of the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, to create new jobs by reducing statutory working hours from 39 to 35, with no loss of pay. Since his election in June, Mr Jospin has been trying to shake off the promise, but it remains a bitterly divisive issue within his government, and between French unions and employers.

Yesterday's strikes, supported by the four main rail unions, sought the 35-hour week (already the norm for railway drivers), an increase in pay and the creation of tens of thousands of new railway jobs. The CGT Communist- led union is also seeking retirement for railwaymen at 55.

The transport minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, himself a Communist and former railwayman, has announced the creation of 1,000 temporary rail jobs for young people. Despite evidence of huge overmanning, especially in the mainline French railways (the SNCF), the unions say the recruits should be only the beginning and should be permanent.

Mr Gayssot invited all the rail unions and employers to a conference on working hours on 20 October. He risked the wrath of travellers by refusing to condemn yesterday's action. "You can't ask a Communist minister to say he is against a strike," he joked. "Nor that he wanted one, obviously."

Behind the union militancy lies the threat of cuts in rail subsidies, especially to the SNCF, first discussed by the former centre-right government, but not yet rejected formally by the Jospin administration.