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French rail workers begin 3 months of strikes in showdown with Macron

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Commuters walking down a platform at the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris on Tuesday. Only one in eight high-speed trains were running, with three quarters of the train drivers on strike.

Paris

FRENCH rail workers kicked off three months of rolling strikes on Tuesday, part of a wave of industrial action that will test President Emmanuel Macron's resolve to reshape France with sweeping reforms.

The strike caused major disruption for France's 4.5 million daily train passengers and stoppages have been announced two days out of five until June 28 - unless Mr Macron drops his bid to force a major overhaul at state rail operator SNCF.

"We have been asking for the same thing for several weeks - that the government completely reconsiders its plan," Philippe Martinez, head of one of France's biggest unions, the CGT, told France Inter radio.

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Staff at Air France, garbage collectors and some energy workers also staged separate walkouts on Tuesday in a growing atmosphere of social strife 11 months after 40-year-old Mr Macron came to power.

Only one in eight high-speed trains were running on what the French media dubbed "black Tuesday", with more than three quarters of train drivers on strike, according to SNCF management.

Only a fifth of regional trains were running - and as commuters took to the roads instead, the streets of Paris were snarled with 370 kilometres of jams in the morning, "exceptional for the time of day", according to traffic website Sytadin.

Some commuters took precautions on the first of two days of strikes this week.

Farid Hachelef, a 32-year-old who works in construction, said he had spent the night in Paris with a friend rather than trying to travel in from the northern suburb of Argenteuil, "otherwise, I would never make it".

In the southern city of Lyon, lawyer Perrine Fontana said the rolling strikes were going to cause "huge problems" for her because she frequently travels for work. "I can understand the railroad workers to a certain degree, but their strike challenges the personal and professional lives of many people," the 27-year-old said.

At the busy Gare du Lyon station in Paris, the platforms were so crammed that a woman fell onto the tracks and had to be helped out by fellow passengers.

Three-quarters of Eurostar trains to London and Brussels will run on Monday and Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands will operate almost normally, but there will be none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland.

At Air France, where staff are striking for the fifth time to demand a pay rise, managers said 75 per cent of flights would operate. Further walkouts are planned for April 7, 10 and 11.

Mr Macron says the SNCF, saddled with 46.6 billion euros (S$75.1 billion) of debt, needs to make major changes as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

It is 30 per cent more expensive to run a train in France than elsewhere in Europe, according to his government, which wants to strip new SNCF hires of special rail workers' status guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement.

The rail strikes are being seen as the biggest challenge yet to Mr Macron's sweeping plans to liberalise the French economy and make it more competitive. The industrial action is a major test, too, of how much influence France's once fearsome unions - whose membership has plunged to just 11 per cent - still carry. AFP