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French rail workers extend strike

By Dheepthika Laurent and Laura Akhoun, CNN
updated 12:48 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There will be more rider chaos after a breakdown in talks with the nation's transport minister
  • Workers oppose a merger of a national rail network owner with a train operator
  • They say a merger bill doesn't go far enough to protect jobs
  • But the government says it will create more rail network cohesion

(CNN) -- French commuters were set to endure more chaos after rail workers prolonged a two-day strike Thursday against reforms meant to rein in the heavily indebted travel sector.

Since Wednesday, the nationwide strikes by workers of state-owned SNCF have caused major disruptions on suburban and intercity high-speed TGV lines. They announced that strikes will continue into Friday after negotiations broke down with French Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier.

He has spearheaded a bill to merge Reseau Ferre de France, owner of France's rail networks, and train operator SNCF in a bid to reduce its 40 billion-euro debt. The two networks were split up in 1997 in an unsuccessful attempt to free SNCF of its debt, which was already in the billions at the time.

"We must seize this historic and indispensable opportunity to save the public rail sector," Cuvillier told reporters in Paris, adding that 82% of the French public supports the bill.

The government says the fusion will create more cohesion in the rail network and prepare it for possible privatization starting in 2019.

"This is a Europe-wide issue. France is showing the path to an organized system, allowing it to fulfill its obligations to public service."

But unions say the merger will not help to unite the rail sector, and they call for a deeper review of the reforms. They say the bill does not go far enough to protect jobs -- over 1,000 rail workers are laid off each year because of the sector's rising financial problems.

"The government refuses to assume this public debt. This debt has a terrible impact on the French rail system productivity," Sylvain Esnault of CGT, France's biggest union, told CNN.

On Thursday, negotiations between the government and France's three biggest unions -- CGT, Unsa and Sud-Rail -- fell through when Sud-Rail representatives walked out of a meeting. They told CNN affiliate BFMTV that "the minister refused to listen to our demands."

The French National Assembly will begin examining the bill on June 16.

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