French rail strike extended into high school final exam day

PARIS - A crippling French railway strike has been extended into a sixth day Monday, forcing authorities to implement special measures to ensure high school students can sit their final exams.

The railway workers' branch of the CGT union leading the protest against a planned reform of the rail sector told AFP Sunday that "mobilisation remained strong", despite reports only around a fifth of workers are striking.

The nationwide extension will mark the sixth day of strikes on the network, which has seen an average of one in two high-speed TGV trains stop and regional transport seriously disrupted.

It will also coincide with the first day of the week-long "baccalaureat" high school final exam.

France's SNCF state rail operator said 10,000 of its non-striking employees would mobilise to ensure that students taking the train would make it to test centres.

Trains and buses would be put in place on affected lines going to these centres, so that students taking the first part of the exam at 0600 GMT - the philosophy test - would make it on time.

Workers will hand out tens of thousands of special stickers for high school students so they can be quickly identified and given priority, the SNCF said.

The government has meanwhile authorised allowing exam candidates arriving an hour late to get an extra hour on their test.

The strike has also affected international links, with trains going to Italy and Spain disrupted. Eurostar services remain normal.

The action takes place before France's lower house of parliament examines proposed reforms aiming to tackle the rail sector's soaring debt on Tuesday.

Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier said last week that the sector's debt stood at more than 40 billion euros ($54 billion), and would likely soar to 80 billion euros by 2025 if nothing was done to stem it.

The unions behind the strike, however, say the proposed reform will not help rein in the debt and have been locked in a trial of strength with the government as neither side gives in.

Finance Minister Michel Sapin said Sunday there was "no reason" to push back a rail reform that makes "common sense".

The head of the moderate CFDT union, meanwhile, on Saturday called for a halt to the strike, which he said was causing "too many people to sweat".