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Test for Hollande as French rail strike enters second week

France's longest rail strike in years entered its second week on Monday, causing major disruptions in a crucial test for President Francois Hollande's embattled Socialist government.

PARIS: France's longest rail strike in years entered its second week on Monday, causing major disruptions in a crucial test for President Francois Hollande's embattled Socialist government.

With lawmakers set to debate a contentious rail reform on Tuesday, the strike entered its sixth day with no end in sight.

The strike has crippled France's rail network, disrupting the plans of millions of travellers as the country's crucial tourist season enters its peak.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed the government would not back down despite the protest, calling the strike "useless and irresponsible".

"We don't see how it (the strike) makes sense when talks are continuing and the government's doors remain open," Valls told France Info radio.

The head of the SNCF rail operator, Guillaume Pepy, said the strike had already cost 80 million euros ($108 million) in lost revenues and reimbursements.

The SNCF said up to two-thirds of trains were cancelled on some high-speed TGV lines, while only one in two trains were running on other lines.

Less than half of scheduled trains were running on inter-city lines and only a quarter on Paris region lines.

International lines to Spain, Italy and Switzerland were also disrupted, but Eurostar links to London and Thalys lines to Brussels and Amsterdam were operating as normal.

In one weekend incident, 2,300 passengers on two TGV trains were trapped for hours overnight from Saturday to Sunday after a power cut that officials said may have been the result of vandalism.

On Monday, the SNCF was forced to implement costly special measures -- including bringing in thousands of extra workers -- to ensure high school students were given priority places as they headed to sit their final exams.

The strike was prompted by a reform aimed at tackling the rail sector's soaring debt, which stands at more than 40 billion euros and is set to almost double by 2025 if nothing changes.

It looks to cut costs by uniting the SNCF train operator and RFF railway network and to eventually open up parts of the service to competition.

Some unions signed up to the reforms after obtaining promises from the government. But two unions still backing the strikes, the CGT and Sud-Rail, rejected the accord and say the plans will lead to job losses without reducing the debt.

SNCF management met with the striking unions on Monday but no progress was made and the strike was extended to a seventh day on Tuesday.

The SNCF said the talks focused on a number of issues including salaries, working hours and hiring, but did not touch on the reform plans.

The strike has been the biggest industrial action since Hollande's government took office two years ago.

Hollande is struggling to bring France's deficit under control, kickstart the country's stagnant economy and stem rising joblessness.

His efforts have so far borne little fruit and Hollande's popularity has sunk to the lowest level of any modern French president.

Analyst Frederic Dabi of polling firm IFOP said that with an approval rating of only 18 percent, Hollande could afford to take a firm stand on the rail reform.

"The negative opinions are so strong that he has nothing to lose," he said.

"He can allow himself to be firm and promote his cause, explaining that these reforms must take place and will allow savings."

Thousands of entertainment industry workers also protested in Paris on Monday to pressure the government over a controversial benefits reform.

The reform would increase contributions for some 250,000 workers in the film, theatre, television and festival industry who are eligible for compensation for periods when they do not work.

France's summer festival season could grind to a halt if workers strike over a deal on the reforms that the government is set to approve by June 30.

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