French commuters brace for rail strike

Travelers and commuters in France braced for severe disruptions to train traffic as unions at the state-run rail operator prepared to strike Monday evening.

The open-ended strike at the SNCF rail network was one of the biggest protests in a week of demonstrations planned by groups including teachers, researchers and Paris transit workers.

Officials have been meeting with unions in a bid to avert what would be France's fifth public transport strike this year, but a last-minute reprieve seemed unlikely.

The rail authority predicted major disruptions to national and Paris-area traffic after the walkout begins at 1900GMT. About two in five high-speed TGV trains were expected to operate as normal, while 80 percent of international trains would run.

Four unions representing train drivers called the walkout to protest restructuring, job cuts, pay and what they see as creeping privatization of the train operator.

SNCF President Louis Gallois, echoing similar comments from Transportation Minister Dominique Perben a day earlier, insisted on Monday that the unions' privatization fears were unfounded.

"Nobody in France is calling for the privatization of SNCF," he told France Info radio. He added that reports of planned line closures being circulated across France were "pure invention."

About 1,000 SNCF workers joined thousands of other public sector workers who marched in Paris on Saturday to protest against government efforts to privatize some public services. Police said some 10,000 people took part in the peaceful march, while organizers put the figure at 25,000.

Also this week, the Communist-backed CGT union plans to lead Paris transportation workers in a one-day strike Wednesday over pay and benefits. The same day, a top union of scientific researchers is planning to hold a protest against a planned government "research pact" that they say would jeopardize jobs and fall short of funding needs.

Two unions representing secondary school teachers are planning a work stoppage Thursday to protest against budget restrictions, job cuts and a new substitute-teacher system announced by the government, according to the AP.


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