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Monday 27 January 2020

Tourists and commuters struggle with French railway strike

The SNCF rail authority said 86% of trains were cancelled nationwide on day two of a three-month stoppage.

Commuters arrive at Saint-Lazare train station in Paris (Christophe Ena/AP)
Commuters arrive at Saint-Lazare train station in Paris (Christophe Ena/AP)

By Masha Macpherson and Angela Charlton

Tourists rearranged their travel plans and French commuters squeezed into scarce trains on Wednesday as day two of a three-month strike hobbled one of the world’s most-travelled railway networks.

Rail unions and President Emmanuel Macron’s government are holding firm in a battle over a plan to abolish a benefits system that allows train drivers and others jobs for life.

The SNCF rail authority said 86% of trains were cancelled nationwide on Wednesday, with a slightly smaller percentage of regional trains halted.

At the Gare Saint-Lazare in northern Paris, passengers packed painfully into trains or waited on overflowing platforms.

Protesters at Saint Charles station in Marseille (Claude Paris/AP)

“I just squeezed in with the others. It was quite unpleasant but we are putting up with it,” said 43-year-old commuter Thibaut Jouany.

The strike is also hitting international traffic. SNCF says no trains are operating between France and Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

About a dozen Eurostar trains to and from Britain were cancelled, and traffic was slightly reduced to Belgium and Germany.

US travel agents and the British government were among those issuing warnings to tourists to check with SNCF before heading to France. The strike comes at a time of heavy travel, just after the Easter holidays and as schools around Europe have spring breaks.

The Pont Cardinet train station in Paris (Christophe Ena/AP)

Tourists and commuters alike know that strikes are common in France, and shared travel tips online and saturated car-sharing apps.

It is too early to tell whether it will impact France’s important tourism sector. More foreign tourists visit France than any other country, according to the government.

What is different this time is that unions are threatening rolling strikes over such a long period — a few days every week through to the end of June.

The stakes are high this time for both the unions and Mr Macron, facing his biggest challenge since he took the presidency last year.

Mr Macron says the sector needs to be reformed (Etienne Laurent/AP)

France prides itself on its railways, seen as an essential pillar of the country’s infrastructure and its public services, and rail workers are fighting to keep their special status and benefits.

Mr Macron says that no longer makes financial sense, and the sector needs reform to stay globally competitive — part of his larger plan to change the way the French economy works.

The French public seems torn, and train passengers had mixed views of the battle.

“There is a portion of it I understand but there is also another part of it – we shouldn’t forget we need some change, people need to accept change. We can’t be in this conflict forever,” said passenger Said Mohammed at Saint-Lazare.

Sandrine Allain-Jaoul, 46, blamed the government for worsening tensions with workers and said the SNCF should keep its special public service role.

“We shouldn’t forget the rural areas where the trains are really important,” she said.

Criticising the government’s reform methods, which include pushing part of the reform through parliament without a debate, she said: “They are just waiting for the unions, the French people to crumble.”

PA Media

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