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French government urges end to strikes a week from Euro soccer

Passengers carry their bags before getting in a train at Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris, France, during a national railway strike by French railway unions workers from the France's rail-operator SNCF, June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Passengers carry their bags before getting in a train at Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris, France, during a national railway strike by French railway unions workers from the France's rail-operator SNCF, June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - France's government, scrambling to end a wave of protests that could disrupt the Euro 2016 soccer championship, called on Friday for an end to a national rail strike and told Air France pilots their plans to stop work were "irresponsible".

The calls came as an open-ended stoppage at the railways entered its third day, reducing train services by about half, a week before the June 10 opening of the soccer tournament which should draw some 2.5 million fans, many of them from abroad.

The strike disruption was compounded by the worst flooding in at least 30 years as the Seine river broke its banks in the centre of Paris, forcing closure of one commuter train line and a halt to barge transport of building materials on top of massive traffic jams on water-logged motorways.

Transport Minister Alain Vidalies said the government had satisfied union demands to protect rest periods for rail workers and help with the 50 billion euro ($55.76 billion) debt of the SNCF rail company, saying the militant CGT union should call off its action.

"It's time to acknowledge the progress that's been made and to get back to work," the minister told RTL radio.

The Socialist government has intervened in internal talks on reorganisation of the SNCF to try to defuse tensions, and made concessions to avert an air traffic controllers' strike. But it now faces a walkout by pilots at flag carrier Air France next week.

"This is irresponsible," the minister said, adding that the nobody would understand why a stoppage over planned pay curbs was timed to start one day into the month-long soccer festival.

Two unions representing the bulk of Air France pilots have given notice of a strike from June 11 to 14 and said they may schedule further stoppages.

The militant CGT union is spearheading strikes at the state rail company and at refinieries and nuclear power stations in a bid to force the government to withdraw a contested reform of labour laws that would make hiring and firing easier.

The core protest has coincided with sectoral issues such as difficult reorganisation negotiations to prepare the SNCF for Europe-wide liberalisation of train traffic in 2020 and, at Air France, efforts to reduce costs.

The CGT and smaller labour and student unions which have been protesting since early March against the labour law reform said they would continue the fight and had proposals to make. But they insisted President Francois Hollande should respond to their requests for a meeting.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said the CGT union, one of the two large unions in France, was waging an increasingly lonely war now that most other unions had dropped grievances.

"If we gave into the CGT, a union which is in the minority even if I respect its history and struggle, it would no longer be possible to reform France," he told l'Est Republicain.

Though unemployment has been falling at a rate of roughly 10 percent, the protests and a fallout from a sustained spell of torrential rain are doing little to lift French spirits despite Hollande's claims a year from elections that "things are getting better" economically.

Two people have died - one of them a man who was washed away when he fell of his horse - as rising river levels in northern France flood homes and shops, with reports too of cereal crop damage in Europe's biggest farm export country.

($1 = 0.8967 euros)

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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