Tear gas, clashes: France fed up with train strike

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Tear gas, clashes: France fed up with train strike
A man wearing a train driver's cap takes part in a demonstration by striking workers of the French state-run rail operator SNCF, backed by French unions CGT and Sud-Rail, against reform plans proposed by the French government on June 17, 2014 in Paris. France's longest rail strike in years rolled on for a second week as lawmakers were set to debate a contentious debt-cutting reform plan opposed by unions. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A worker of the French railroad company SNCF wears a sticker on his shirt reading : 'priority strike' as he takes part in a demonstration to protest against the planned railroad reform by the French government, on June 17, 2014 in front of the train station of Nantes, western France. France's longest rail strike in years rolled on for a second week on June 17 as lawmakers were set to debate a contentious debt-cutting reform plan opposed by unions. The crippling action, which comes as the tourist season enters a peak phase, has proved a key challenge for the embattled Socialist government, which has said it will not kowtow to the strikers. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD (Photo credit should read JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)
A traveler sits on his bag next to his dog in front of the train station of Nantes, western France, on June 17, 2014. France's longest rail strike in years rolled on for a second week on June 17 as lawmakers were set to debate a contentious debt-cutting reform plan opposed by unions. The crippling action, which comes as the tourist season enters a peak phase, has proved a key challenge for the embattled Socialist government, which has said it will not kowtow to the strikers. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD (Photo credit should read JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)
French junior minister for Transport, Maritime Economy and Fishery Frederic Cuvillier (L) and French CFDT trade union leader Didier Aubert (R) sign modernisation agreements as part of a French railway reform, as a CFDT delegation observes, on the third day of a national strike by employees of the French state rail company SNCF. A national train strike called by trade unions which began on the evening of June 10 in protest against a proposed railway reform aimed at containing the sector's soaring debt, was renewed a second time for another 24 hours on June 12. AFP PHOTO /JACQUES DEMARTHON (Photo credit should read JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks in an empty train at the Saint-Lazare railway station, on June 13, 2014 in Paris, on the third day of a national strike by French SNCF railway company employees. The action takes place just one week before France's lower house of parliament examines proposed reforms aiming to tackle the rail sector's soaring debt. AFP PHOTO /JACQUES DEMARTHON (Photo credit should read JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) - Even France may be getting fed up with strikes.

A week into a nationwide train strike that has tangled traffic and stranded tourists, police fired tear gas Tuesday at protesting rail workers. Two polls suggest passengers have little sympathy for the train workers' lament. Even the labor-friendly Socialist government is breaking a long-held French taboo and is openly criticizing the striking unions.

The strike has caused some of the worst disruption to the country's rail network in years - and heated up as the reform bill went to the lower house of Parliament for debate Tuesday. The bill would unite the SNCF train operator with the RFF railway network, which would pave the way to opening up railways to competition.

Workers fear the reform will mean job losses and hurt the quality of France's extensive and often-vaunted train network. The government says the reform is needed to better streamline the railway's administration, as France and other European countries gear up for full-scale railway liberalization in coming years.

With sentiment piling up against them, unions aren't backing down.

Several hundred workers staged a protest Tuesday near the National Assembly on Paris' Left Bank, waving red union flags and demanding that the bill be delayed or changed. In northern Lille, protesters briefly occupied City Hall.

The protesters blocked cars and tried to push past police to approach the parliament building, firing flares and throwing bottles. Officers responded with tear gas and batons and wrestled a few protesters to the ground. Then protesters marched onto train tracks and set off flares on the tracks at Paris' busy Montparnasse station, which links travelers with cities across western and southwestern France.

Even in a country where the right to strike is almost sacred, the Socialist leadership and their conservative opponents are losing patience.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the violence "unacceptable" and defended the reform bill in Parliament on Tuesday. A day earlier, in very unusual public criticism, Valls said "this strike is useless and irresponsible given the situation in the country."

Last week, French President François Hollande called on rail unions to bring an end to the strike, even if he has no power to stop it. The right to strike is guaranteed by the French constitution, with minor restrictions for transport workers, who must give 48-hours' notice of their intention to strike.

The strike began last Wednesday, and while only a minority of workers is taking part, it has disrupted travel on trains and commuter lines across France. About a third of trains were canceled nationwide Tuesday. The strike has not affected international lines such as the Eurostar train from Paris to London, but it has caused problems for international travelers using the commuter rail to and from Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The strike further angered the public in Week Two as it ran into the start of high school baccalaureate exams Monday. The SNCF had to reorganize its service to make sure students get priority places on packed trains and buses.

Two polls this week showed that most respondents oppose the strike and support reform of the rail system.

Matthieu Chapuis, a 27-year-old railway worker at the Montparnasse protest, sought to dispel the image of train workers as privileged public servants clinging to generous benefits.

"I work three Sundays out of four," Chapuis told The Associated Press. He said he was paid 1,600 euros a month (about $2,200) "to toil around-the-clock in three shifts," switching trains between tracks.

"On top of that, if I make a mistake, I am criminally responsible," he said. "That means that if there are dead people, I go to jail."

The government's stance is familiar to the opposition conservatives. Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon of the UMP party said in a statement that "SNCF customers are hostages of a minority of strikers who don't care about the public interest."

SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy estimated Monday that the strike had cost the company between 80 million and 100 million euros.

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Michel Euler and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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