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French rail strike to continue indefinitely

GT Union general secretary Philippe Martinez (L) and his delegation arrives to take part in a meeting with French Prime minister as part of the negotiations on planned overhaul of SNCF, on May 7, 2018 at the Matignon hotel in Paris. FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP

French railway unions warned Monday that the strike at the national rail company, the SNCF, would continue indefinitely. The warning came after a meeting between rail unions and French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, the first such meeting since the beginning of the prolonged strike.

After the meeting, union representatives said that the strike would continue.

Strikes will continue

"For us the strike continues", Laurent Brun, head of the CGT left-wing trade union branch in the SNCF, said. The eighth sequence of rolling strikes of 48 hours begins this evening, Monday, 7th of May.

"We are forced to continue because the prime minister did not say anything more than he said before," Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT, said.

There is "no question of lifting the mobilization. The strike continues," said Didier Aubert, general secretary of the CFDT Cheminots.

"We met a very determined prime minister who stood firm on the main points, but who, behind it all, is ready to open to discussions on topics that are important to us such as the new social framework for new railway workers, such as the debt, the sustainability of funding rail infrastructure."

The secretary general of the CFDT, Laurent Berger, however, also mentioned a second phase "where it would be possible" to draw up proposals before the passage of the proposed reform through the Senate, the upper house of the French parliament. The opening of the debate on the reform of the SNCF in the upper house is scheduled to begin 23rd of May.

Challenge to Macron

The railway workers have been protesting for over a month against proposals by President Emmanuel Macron to reform the company.

The strikes are being seen as the biggest challenge yet to Macron's sweeping plans to liberalise the French economy and make it more competitive.

He managed to pass controversial labour reforms in October, but the length and severity of the rail strikes are already earning comparisons with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's showdown with coal miners in 1984.

The industrial action is a major test, too, of how much influence France's once fearsome unions -- whose membership has plunged to just 11 percent -- still carry.