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Cost of French rail strike escalates as walkout enters second week

It may already have cost the state-owned rail operator 100m euros, says CEO

Paris

STRIKES at France's state-owned SNCF railway operator may have already cost the company 100 million euros (S$161 million) as the walkout affecting services including the Eurostar route between Paris and London rumbles into a second week.

The toll calculated by SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy may continue to rise with the standoff intensifying between the government and unions. President Emmanuel Macron's planned bill to reform the national railway was scheduled to be introduced for debate in Parliament on Monday.

The cancellations are affecting about a quarter of cross-Channel trains, while about 80 per cent of high-speed links between French cities and two-thirds of regional trains are running, according to a statement. The fast Thalys link to Belgium and the Netherlands was expected to run as usual on Monday but will be partially disrupted on Tuesday. Most commuter trains around Paris will not be operating.

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CGT labour-union chief Philippe Martinez responded swiftly to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's promise not to compromise on opening up France's rail market to competition and on ending special labour privileges for future hires. "We are facing a wall," Mr Martinez told Europe 1 radio on Monday.

Mr Philippe told Le Parisien newspaper on Sunday that the state won't consider taking over SNCF's debt - which he said earlier stands at between 46 billion euros and 50 billion euros - until the changes are made.

Mr Macron has pledged to overhaul the indebted national railroad with steps that include ending for new recruits the job security, early retirement and special pensions long enjoyed by workers. Attempts to whittle away the benefits have bedeviled French leaders for decades. Now unions have called on workers to step up strikes after failing to gain concessions from the state during talks last week.

Under pressure to explain his plan, Mr Macron will appear on television twice this week. The French president, who has rarely resorted to television interviews since his May election, is scheduled to appear on the midday news show on TF1 on Thursday, then again on Sunday on BFM television.

The government could handle the public railways debt under several conditions, including a return to operations and talks on modernising operations, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Radio Classique on Monday. Still, the government will have to take France's public debt into consideration should it have to deal with SNCF's, Mr Le Maire said.

SNCF employees are heavily unionised and united, with the current walkout scheduled to last until 8am on Tuesday. Labour groups have planned a series of two-day stoppages every five days until at least June.

An Ifop poll published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche showed that 44 per cent of respondents believe the rail strike is justified, compared with 46 per cent last weekend. Of those polled, 62 per cent said the government should carry out the reforms without making concessions and 72 per cent said they would welcome competition on high-speed and regional lines. BLOOMBERG