French CGT union fails to rally strike support

97 per cent of trains running despite CGT strike call

PARIS (Reuters) — France's hardline CGT union failed on Tuesday to mobilize wide support for a public sector strike, while separately its leader came under pressure as it emerged the labour organisation had bankrolled a costly renovation of his apartment.

The CGT had called for workers in the transport and energy sectors to strike starting late on Monday over spending cuts in the public sector which it said would hurt service quality.

But despite the fact that the CGT is the largest union of the SNCF public rail operator, some 97 per cent of trains were running on Tuesday. Rallies planned to start at 2 p.m. in Paris and other cities were sparsely attended, local media said.

In the energy sector, power utility EDF said strike participation stood at just 8.75 per cent in the morning.

The weak mobilization came after a rally in October against social security spending cuts drew sparse crowds and previous marches against austerity also produced a weak turnout. A CGT-organised strike by railworkers to protest against a planned reform of the sector in June also fizzled out without success.

Separately, CGT leader Thierry Lepaon defended himself from criticism after satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported the union had paid 130,000 euros ($162,656) to renovate a 120-square-metre apartment rented for him near Paris.

Lepaon, whose primary residence is in northern France, said there were problems with the union's expense approval protocol and said that both the size of the apartment and amount of the renovations bill were less than reported by the weekly.

He also accused Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a pro-reform Socialist, of fanning what he called a campaign to "destabilize" the union, France's second largest by membership and traditionally the most fervent in defence of worker rights.

"He (Valls) should be paying attention to national problems where results are very much awaited, and let the CGT handle its own affairs," he said, referring to critical remarks by Valls' calling for "exemplary" behaviour among unionists.

Lepaon, who took over leadership of the powerful, Communist-backed CGT union in 2013, said he would receive the heads of the union's regional chapters one by one during a two-day meeting this week to ensure he could count on their support.

While President Francois Hollande has tried to enlist unions in his efforts to reform Europe's second-largest economy, including by loosening rules on hiring and firing, Lepaon's CGT and the FO union have consistently refused to sign labour deals.

Analysts say that while the CFDT has managed to help shape some of the reforms pursued by the government, the CGT has seen a loss of influence.

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