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Economy

France braces for next rail strike as students occupy universities

media Striking rail workers in Marseille BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP

French rail unions met the government on Thursday after the first of a series of strikes that will start again on Saturday. Meanwhile, students have occupied some universities and industrial action is taking place or planned at the Carrefour supermarket chain, hospitals and Air France, which could spell trouble for President Emmanuel Macron's government.

Rail traffic took some time to return to normal on Thursday, with rolling stock scattered around the country following two days of strikes, the first stoppages in a rolling programme of industrial action against the government's plans to reform the network.

Three-quarters of the network's train drivers and about 30 percent of all staff took part in Wednesday's strike, a lower figure than the previous day but still enough to cause serious disruption.

The next strike starts on Saturday and is due to last until Tuesday morning.

Government "determined"

Government representatives met the unions on Thursday afternoon to discuss their reform programme, which includes phasing out favourable employment conditions and preparing the company for EU-imposed competition from potential private operators.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux vowed that the "transformation" of the SNCF rail company will be pursued with "great detrmination" on Thursday and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted that his plan to deny new recruits the same employment terms, notably early retirement, is non-negotiable.

But Philippe did indicate that the government might take over the company's 54.5-billion-euro debt in exchange for "extremely clear commitments" to change the way the SNCF operates.

That suggestion was dismissed as "blackmail" by Philippe Martinez, the leader of the biggest union at the company, the CGT, while other union bosses acknowledged that the debt is a "key issue".

Where does the debt come from?

The SNCF's debt, widely portrayed as a result of the rail workers' employment terms, was actually inherited from private operators when they were nationalised in 1937.

It has since ballooned, thanks to a number of factors, including interest rates, the transfer of freight to the roads, the development of high-speed rail links, often under pressure from local politicians, and, now, the need to make up for years of inadequate investment on less-favoured lines.

The government has been reluctant to take the debt over, since it would add to the already substantial public deficit, which it has promised to radically reduce.

The company's turnover rose 4.2 percent last year to 33.5 billion euros and it made an operating profit, although that was partly due to its operations abroad.

Unions pitch for public support

Although opinion polls show most French people in favour of some reform of the SNCF, demonstations in support of the strike are planned.

The unions are trying to convince the public that they are fighting to save a public service from possible privatisation, and, although the government denies plans to sell of the SNCF, competition will mean private operators will be able to bid for profitable lines.

The unions are also due to meet later this month to discuss the various strikes and protest movements taking place, with left-wingers hoping that bringing them all together into one big protest movement could increase pressure on the government.

Air France workers are due to strike on seven days this month and three of those days will coincide with a rail workers' stoppage.

Students occupy universities

Meanwhile, students are occupying or picketing several universities in protest at a proposed higher education reform that will impose selection before entry rather than after the first year of courses, a move they claim is a blow to equality.

Those protests have gathered steam this week following the violent dispersal of an occupation at Montpellier University by far-right students, accompanied by the dean of the law faculty Philippe Pétel and a lecturer, who have both been suspended.

Philippe on Thursday insisted that exams, scheduled for the end of the month and the beginning of May, will take place, although Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal did not seem so sure that they would all go ahead.

François Ruffin, an MP for the hard-left France Unbowed party, on Wednesday called for a "big national demonstration" on 5 May to bring together strikers and other opponents of the government.

So spring may prove stormy this year for Macron and his government.

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