PARIS, April 3 (Reuters) - Rail workers began a three-month rolling strike on Tuesday, causing travel chaos and presenting the toughest challenge yet to President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to reform the French economy.
However, discontent towards the former investment banker’s economic policies spreads beyond the railways.
On Tuesday, university students protested at new, tougher entry requirements, garbage collectors blocked access to incinerators, and a small number of energy workers downed tools.
Here’s a rundown on the SNCF and other protests:
Nearly one in two train drivers, conductors and signal-box workers went on strike on Tuesday, bringing widespread disruption to Paris commuter lines and France’s high-speed TGV network.
Macron wants to transform the heavily-indebted, state-run SNCF into a profit-making public service able to stand up to foreign competition when its monopoly ends in line with EU regulations. The SNCF loses 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion)annually.
The government wants an agreement on scrapping special employment benefits enjoyed by rail workers, including job-for-life guarantees and early retirement, before discussing how much SNCF debt the Treasury absorbs.
SNCF boss Guillaume Pepy estimates each strike day will cost the SNCF 20 million euros.
A strike by Air France workers added to travel misery. The national airline said it was operating 75 percent of flights, with long- and medium-haul out Paris Charles De Gaulle the hardest hit.
Unions are calling for a 6 percent salary hike. One in three pilots were expected to join cabin crew and ground staff in the walkout.
Company bosses reject the demand and have instead offered to compensate workers for any reduction in spending power since 2011. They say the unions’ demands are impossible to meet without compromising its growth strategy.
Rubbish collectors from the hard-left CGT union went on strike in greater Paris on Tuesday. They blocked access to three out of the four incinerators serving the Ile de France region.
Rubbish processing sites were also blocked in the Bouches-du Rhone, Seine-Saint-Denis, Yvelines and Seine-Maritime areas.
Garbage workers say they object to “government announcements on the break up of public services and public workers’ benefits”.
Student demonstrations against university reforms continue.
In the southern city of Montpellier, where protesting students were violently ejected from university buildings on March 22, the law faculty reopened on Tuesday under police surveillance after a 10-day occupation by students.
At Montpellier’s Paul-Valery University and Toulouse University, students are preventing access to lecture halls.
They are protesting against reforms to university enrolment. Students in France who pass high school exams have the right to go to university in their home area. But this led to popular subjects being oversubscribed and prompted the introduction of an unpopular lottery system where demand is highest.
Macron’s government has scrapped that lottery system and the most pressed universities will be allowed to select students on merit — an even more unpopular move.
The CGT union called a rolling power sector strike in a show of solidarity with rail workers. A spokesman for state-run utility EDF said power output had not been affected.
So far, other unions in the energy industry have declined to join the CGT.
Teachers, creche workers and civil servants went on strike on March 22 in protest at Macron’s plans to cut the public sector headcount by 120,000 by 2022. Pensioners demonstrated against higher social security payments.
$1 = 0.8145 euros Reporting by Caroline Pailliez; Editing by Richard Lough and Robin Pomeroy