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'Full French experience' at strike-hit Eiffel Tower

Saturday, December 17, 2016 - 08:40

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Tourists discovering Paris for the first time this week have had an unwelcome introduction to France's strike culture: a four-day stoppage at the Eiffel Tower has left thousands disappointed.

[PARIS] Tourists discovering Paris for the first time this week have had an unwelcome introduction to France's strike culture: a four-day stoppage at the Eiffel Tower has left thousands disappointed.

At the foot of the 324-metre Iron Lady on Friday, crowds milled around complaining about the lack of information and watching hopefully for the lifts to spark into life.

"Brilliant. It's the full French experience!" said 46-year-old computer programmer Paul Freeman sarcastically after reading the sign announcing a fourth day of protests by workers.

Amy Lee, 50, was puzzled, even amused, at the sight of a few dozen workers gathered around signs denouncing the management in front of what is normally a busy ticket office.

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"We're from Singapore and for us this would be illegal," the homemaker said as she snapped a picture on her phone. "This is something that's interesting." At this time of year, 6,000 people per day ascend the famed iron tower, completed in 1889, but the Christmas rush starts this weekend when as many as 20,000 are expected daily.

Some members of the radical left CGT and FO unions spearheading the action made their apologies to passing visitors, assuring them they had their best interests at heart.

"We have the feeling that the new management doesn't want to provide the resources needed to maintain the Eiffel Tower," FO representative Hatim Ababoussayr told AFP.

Three separate stoppages by the 300-member workforce have disrupted activities at the country's most visited monument this year.

This week's stoppage is not about pay rises, job cuts or working conditions - common complaints by trade unions and the usual pretexts for strikes in other countries.

It is rooted in French workplace culture, which has a rich history of protest and often sees workers also take issue with strategic management decisions.

France has by far the most strike days among major European economies, according to data from the European Trade Union Institute, with 149 days not worked per 1,000 employees in 2009-2015.

In Germany, the same figure was 19 days per 1,000 employees and in Britain it was 23.

French labour law, which makes firing full-time workers extremely difficult, also places strict obligations on management to engage and communicate with union representatives.

"For several months, communication has been going nowhere," CGT representative Denis Vavassori told AFP, saying staff were anxious to know the management's plan for next year.

Among the projects under consideration are a major paint-stripping and re-painting job to repair flaking areas of the tower.

"When you look at it from the Champ de Mars (the surrounding park), it's a catastrophe," says Mr Vavassori, who says staff are worried about lead contamination from the old paint.

Other complaints are the choice made for a new lift, which has since broken down, and fears for ticket office employees as more and more customers go online.

Mr Vavassori points to the positive impact of worker participation in the running of the public company SETE, which manages the tower under a franchise from Paris city council.

Workers have pushed management to take the paint problem seriously and a strike in May against pickpockets - "a real mafia", says Mr Vavassori - led police to finally take the scourge seriously.

SETE management, under director general Anne Yannic since last year, has taken a tough line with the disruption.

In a sign of the tensions, she has accused unions of handing over an "unreadable and incomprehensible" list of demands.

"Talks are continuing. SETE offers once again its apologies to all of its visitors," the company said in a new statement Friday.

AFP

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