01:32 - Source: CNN
Why are the French always striking?
(CNN) —  

Rail workers across France have gone on strike for the first day of a three-month rolling walkout, the latest and potentially biggest battle over labor laws in the country since President Emmanuel Macron took office last May promising to transform the jobs market.

Train services have been severely disrupted, with around 87% of high-speed trains and 80% of regional services canceled Tuesday, according to SNCF, France’s state-owned rail company.

Eurostar services were also affected, with one in four services from Paris canceled. High-speed Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands were operating almost as normal, but there were no services towards Switzerland, Spain or Italy.

French railway workers attend a protest in Bordeaux on Tuesday.
PHOTO: GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
French railway workers attend a protest in Bordeaux on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s walkout – dubbed “Black Tuesday” by the French media – comes less than two weeks after a nationwide strike across the public and transport sectors as workers protested the government’s proposed labor overhauls, including the plans to open the SNCF to competition.

Unions have called for the “strongest possible” strike to protest proposed reforms that they believe would lead to the privatization of the railways, and to call for higher wages and an end to precarious jobs. The government said there were no plans to privatize SNCF, which is 45 billion euros ($56 billion) in debt, according to Reuters.

“We’re striking for several reasons, but at the top of the list is the government wanting to open up the service to competition,” the spokesman for rail union Sud Rail, Eric Santinelli, told CNN. “They don’t want to do it in a progressive manner, they want to do it in an accelerated manner.”

Both sides have made it clear that they will not concede, and each sees the strikes as a test of their resolve and credibility. The government believes it is acting with a mandate for change, but the unions have always succeeded in making the government back down.

01:15 - Source: CNN
Navalny ally: Of course I'm scared but I cannot hide myself
Sergey Aleksashenko
PHOTO: CNN
Sergey Aleksashenko
Now playing
01:15
Navalny ally: Of course I'm scared but I cannot hide myself
A split of a Muslim religious leader and the Archbishop of Westminster being interviewed by CNN's Becky Anderson.
PHOTO: CNN
A split of a Muslim religious leader and the Archbishop of Westminster being interviewed by CNN's Becky Anderson.
Now playing
02:14
Pope's Iraq visit is risky. 2 religious leaders explain why it's key
Middle east Iraq Christians pope francis Wedeman pkg intl hnk vpx_00000823.png
Middle east Iraq Christians pope francis Wedeman pkg intl hnk vpx_00000823.png
Now playing
03:44
What's behind the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq?
Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh waits for the carriage carrying Princess Eugenie of York and her husband Jack Brooksbank to pass at the start of the procession after their wedding ceremony at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, in Windsor, on October 12, 2018. (Photo by Alastair Grant / POOL / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ALASTAIR GRANT/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: ALASTAIR GRANT/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh waits for the carriage carrying Princess Eugenie of York and her husband Jack Brooksbank to pass at the start of the procession after their wedding ceremony at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, in Windsor, on October 12, 2018. (Photo by Alastair Grant / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALASTAIR GRANT/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:37
Prince Philip: The man behind the Queen
PHOTO: CBS
Now playing
01:39
Duchess of Sussex says Buckingham Palace is 'perpetuating falsehoods'
Screengrab for Paula Hancocks live segment on Myanmar
PHOTO: Twitter
Screengrab for Paula Hancocks live segment on Myanmar
Now playing
03:13
Video shows dramatic escalation of violence in Myanmar
Now playing
03:24
Author describes what happened when ISIS underestimated women fighters
FILE- In this Nov. 7, 2019 file photo, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Wednesday, March 3, 2021 that she has launched an investigation into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories. Fatou Bensouda said in a statement the probe will be conducted "independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor."(AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
PHOTO: Peter Dejong/AP
FILE- In this Nov. 7, 2019 file photo, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Wednesday, March 3, 2021 that she has launched an investigation into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories. Fatou Bensouda said in a statement the probe will be conducted "independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor."(AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
Now playing
01:57
ICC to investigate alleged war crimes by Israel and Hamas
Attorney-General Christian Porter speaks during a media conference on March 03, 2021 in Perth, Australia. Attorney-General Christian Porter has publicly confirmed he is the cabinet minister named in a historical rape allegation from 1988 which came to light in the last week and has emphatically denied the allegations.
PHOTO: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Attorney-General Christian Porter speaks during a media conference on March 03, 2021 in Perth, Australia. Attorney-General Christian Porter has publicly confirmed he is the cabinet minister named in a historical rape allegation from 1988 which came to light in the last week and has emphatically denied the allegations.
Now playing
02:25
Australian Attorney General denies historical rape allegation
Now playing
03:08
Cuba aims to produce its own Covid-19 vaccine
Police shoot stun grenades at Arab Israelis protesting an increase in gang violence in their towns.
PHOTO: CNN
Police shoot stun grenades at Arab Israelis protesting an increase in gang violence in their towns.
Now playing
04:18
Police shoot stun grenades at peaceful Arab-Israeli protesters
Mount Sinabung in Indonesia erupted on March 2, launching a cloud of ash and dust several kilometers into the sky. No one was injured in the eruption but authorities have warned people to stay away from the crater.
PHOTO: olcanological Survey of Indonesia via Reuters
Mount Sinabung in Indonesia erupted on March 2, launching a cloud of ash and dust several kilometers into the sky. No one was injured in the eruption but authorities have warned people to stay away from the crater.
Now playing
00:40
See this volcano in Indonesia erupt
New satellite images taken by Maxar show that North Korea sometime in the past year built a structure that may be intended to obscure entrances to an underground facility where nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons components are stored.
PHOTO: Courtesy Maxar
New satellite images taken by Maxar show that North Korea sometime in the past year built a structure that may be intended to obscure entrances to an underground facility where nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons components are stored.
Now playing
01:47
See images US intelligence claims is a secret weapons site
nigeria kidnapped schoolgirls released Busari pkg intl ldn vpx_00000423.png
nigeria kidnapped schoolgirls released Busari pkg intl ldn vpx_00000423.png
Now playing
02:09
Tears of joy and relief as 279 Nigerian schoolgirls return home
Protesters take cover behind homemade shields as tear gas is fired during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 1, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: STR/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters take cover behind homemade shields as tear gas is fired during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 1, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:16
Footage shows tear gas, flash bangs used on protesters in Myanmar

The walkout, which began at 7 p.m. local time Monday and will end at 8 a.m. Thursday, is the first of 18 two-day walkouts planned before the end of June. The next is scheduled for April 8-9.

In an IFOP poll published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, 53% of the nearly 1,000 people surveyed said the strike was unjustified.

Other sectors could join the strike as it continues in protest at broader changes to labor laws proposed by Macron.

Unions fear that if Macron triumphs in the rail dispute, he could soon push through controversial reforms in areas such as education and pensions.

Air France workers also walked out Tuesday in a separate and continuing dispute over pay, leading to the cancellation of around 25% of flights. Three further strike days are planned in the next ten days.

A passenger crosses the tracks at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on Tuesday.
PHOTO: Francois Mori/AP
A passenger crosses the tracks at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on Tuesday.

Poll: French divided over reforms

After winning 66% of the vote in a run-off with far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last year’s presidential election, Macron claimed a mandate to overhaul France’s labor laws, the raison d’être of his candidacy. His pledge echoed the promises of several previous French presidents, none of whom were able to implement the changes due to strong union opposition.

In a series of five executive orders last August, Macron laid out his goals: to give companies more flexibility in hiring and firing workers, more power to negotiate working conditions directly with employees, and less financial risk in cases of wrongful dismissals.

While French business leaders and economists welcomed the plans, several unions have strongly criticized the proposals. Recent polls also show that support for Macron among voters has fallen since his election, which could weaken his position in the dispute.

Just over half (51%) of those surveyed in Sunday’s IFOP poll said they support the reforms.

Macron’s plan to turn the state-owned SNCF into a profit-making business has raised particular concerns among its employees, who fear they could lose job-for-life guarantees, annual pay rises and the right to early retirement. Union bosses have also expressed concern that increasing the competitiveness of the railways could mean increased ticket prices for travelers.

’This type of competition is savage’

France’s transport minister Elisabeth Borne said there were no plans to privatize SNCF and suggested that opening up the country’s high-speed trains to competition would mean “more trains, new services, cheaper tickets.”

“This reform is necessary for travelers, necessary for the SNCF, necessary for the railway workers,” she told CNN’s affiliate BFM TV on Tuesday.

Borne also said she was looking for dialogue with the unions, a claim that Santinelli, the rail union spokesman, disputed.

“The reality is she wants to create a law which opens us up to competition and it is out of the question that we will write a law that includes that,” he told CNN.

“Our vision is of a railway system offering a public service. She’s suggesting private companies that will use the SNCF personnel; this type of competition is savage and it’s unacceptable.”

A man wearing a jacket reading "angry railway worker on strike" at a Marseille train station on Tuesday.
PHOTO: BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images
A man wearing a jacket reading "angry railway worker on strike" at a Marseille train station on Tuesday.

The French government has been trying to push through changes to labor laws for decades, with one of the strongest drives coming in 1995. Then-Prime Minister Alain Juppe had proposed restructuring SNCF and raising the retirement age for train drivers.

He was forced to concede after the country’s unions sent thousands to the streets in demonstrations and, in the minds of many, turned the protest movement into a battle for the soul of the country, winning widespread public support.

The railway workers leading the charge this time do not appear to have the same level of public backing, but Santinelli is optimistic.

“Either the government starts really negotiating or we’ll just keep on going,” he said.

CNN’s Melissa Bell contributed to this report.