Strike makes for not-so-merry Christmas travel in France


Holiday travellers across France scrambled for alternatives Sunday as an 18-day-old transport strike over pension reform saw train services slashed yet again. 

President Emmanuel Macron issued an appeal on Saturday for a truce over the holidays, three days after talks between the government and unions failed to ease the standoff and labour leaders called for further mobilisation.

Workers at the SNCF and RATP rail and public transport companies have downed tools to protest at the government’s plan to meld France’s 42 pension schemes into a single points-based one, which would see some public employees lose certain privileges.

Weeks of travel misery worsened on Sunday, when tens of thousands planned to meet up with family and friends for the Christmas break.

Only half of high-speed TGVs and a quarter of inter-city trains were running, and the SNCF urged travellers to cancel or delay planned trips.

In the Paris area, commuter trains were down to a trickle, and only two out of 16 metro lines were running on the last shopping Sunday before Christmas.

Ten metro lines will open Monday but at reduced frequencies except for the two driverless lines, RATP said, while key commuter trains will run during rush hour but at reduced frequencies. 

SNCF said two in five TGV trains will operate and international traffic will also be affected.

– Public support dropping –

Macron, on a visit to Ivory Coast, urged striking workers to embrace a “spirit of responsibility” and for “collective good sense to triumph”.

“I believe there are moments in the life of a nation when it is also good to call a truce to respect families and the lives of families,” he said in Abidjan.

The Elysee Palace also announced Saturday that Macron would renounce the pension he would be entitled to as former president, and he will not take up a lucrative seat on the Constitutional Council as tradition dictates.

In so doing, the former banker, who turned 42 on Saturday, will forgo a total of 19,720 euros ($21,850) a month.

A poll by the IFOP agency published Sunday showed public backing for the action dropping by three percentage points, though 51 percent still expressed support or sympathy for the strikers.

– ‘It’s unbearable’ –

Jean Garrigues, a historian with the University of Orleans, told AFP this was likely to change over the holidays — cherished family time for the French.

“The transport blockage has mostly affected the Parisian region, and we can see that in the coming period, it will also affect people in the rural areas. This will alienate many people from the labour movement,” he said.

On Saturday, frustrated traveller Jeffrey Nwutu Ebube was trying to find a way home to Toulouse in the south from the northern port town of Le Havre — some 850 kilometres (530 miles) away.

“I’m upset, this strike is unbearable… The government must do something,” he told AFP.

The government insists a pension overhaul is necessary to create a fairer, more transparent system.

It would do away with schemes that offer early retirement and other advantages to mainly public-sector workers, such as train drivers who can retire as early as 52. 

While some unions support a single system, almost all reject a new proposed “pivot age” of 64 — beyond the legal retirement age of 62 — for retiring with a full pension.

– Heavy toll on business –

Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas.

The protest is taking a heavy toll on businesses, especially retailers, hotels and restaurants during one of the busiest periods of the year.

Industry associations have reported turnover declines of 30 to 60 percent from a year earlier.

Stormy weather contributed to travellers’ woes Sunday, dropping trees on railway lines in the south of France, blocking several routes, as violent winds left 110,000 households in the southwest without electricity.

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