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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strikes Cripple French Air, Rail Traffic

PARIS -- French public sector strikes crippled air traffic and sparked rush hour rail logjams Tuesday, a day after the conservative government dealt firmly with road blockades by truckers.

Barely one in five flights went ahead at Paris's two main airports as air traffic controllers pursued a lightning strike over privatization fears that disrupted air traffic elsewhere in Europe.

Caught up in the latest industrial unrest across Europe, rail commuters into Gare du Nord in Paris had to walk along the tracks for the last 250 meters into the station as rail staff action over job and pensions caused a bottleneck of trains.

"Public transport always gets hit in strikes and I cannot accept this," said David Laget, a 23-year-old student who said he was over an hour late for lectures.

Only a few blockades were reported on French roads early Tuesday after truckers demanding pay rises faced pressure from police and drivers affiliated with non-striking trade unions to dismantle roadblocks set up Monday.

The French protests, which come alongside strikes by British firefighters over pay claims and after a spate of action by workers in Belgium, Germany and Italy, were to culminate in a march by tens of thousands of state employees through Paris.

Police said some 30,000 protesters gathered in central Paris by midday to start their march at 1:30 p.m.

Just 100 out of around 600 scheduled flights were due to go ahead at Paris Orly airport, with around 80 percent canceled at Charles de Gaulle airport to the north of the capital.

"It is very quiet here. Most passengers were warned beforehand and changed their plans," a spokeswoman for Charles de Gaulle airport said.

The strike by air traffic controllers caused disruption elsewhere in Europe as flights from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport were diverted to avoid French airspace and some flights out of Geneva to Britain were delayed.

Schiphol airport said some 30 flights to and from France had been dropped. British Airways canceled a total 64 flights between London and France on Monday and Tuesday. Germany's Lufthansa dropped 70 flights to France.

Across France, public transport was badly hit in cities including Bordeaux, Marseille, Nancy and Toulouse. Paris Metro lines saw service cut. Outside the Paris region, there was little impact on the rail service and the Eurostar link to London and Brussels was working normally.

Unions have also called strikes at schools, social security offices, unemployment agencies, government ministries and energy providers EDF and GDF, although no electricity cuts were seen.

The protests are the biggest domestic challenge yet faced by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's five-month-old government, which has irked unions with plans to privatize state-run companies, reform the pension system and cut spending.

Raffarin "seems to have got a good start to reach one of his goals -- to avoid committing the same mistake that his predecessor Alain Juppe made," wrote the business daily La Tribune, referring to the conservative prime minister whose pension reform plan was blocked by crippling strikes in 1995.

The truckers' climbdown was "a humiliating defeat [for the unions] and a triumph the government will benefit from," the newspaper said.

But the truckers' protest is only the first round in what promises to be a tough fight over government plans to reform France's costly state pension scheme, the conservative daily Le Figaro pointed out.

"On the eve of a pension reform, [the unions] want to put on a show of force," it wrote of a showdown that could peak early next year. "This is a general rehearsal for the mother of all union battles."