Christmas mayhem feared in France as transport strike enters 10th day

FRENCH PRESS AGENCY - AFP
PARIS
Published 14.12.2019 22:58
Updated 20.12.2019 02:23
Commuters walk to take a train at Gare de Lyon train station during a strike by all unions of French SNCF workers and the Paris transport network RATP in Paris. Reuters Photo
Commuters walk to take a train at Gare de Lyon train station during a strike by all unions of French SNCF workers and the Paris transport network (RATP) in Paris. (Reuters Photo)

France reeled under a crippling public transport strike for a tenth day Saturday aimed at forcing the government to scrap a pension revamp, as fears grew of travel mayhem during Christmas.

Train traffic was severely disrupted with only one out four TGV high-speed long-distance trains and three of 10 regional trains running across the country.

But Paris and its environs remained the worst hit. Nine metro lines in the capital remained closed and there were skeletal transport services between the city and its suburbs.

Only 60% of the city's bus services were running.

Strikers have warned of similar disruptions on Sunday and Monday and national rail operator SNCF and the RATP Paris transport network confirmed service would be very limited with just one in four TGVs running.

On Saturday, SNCF managing director Rachel Picard, told Le Parisien daily that "half of the passengers" would have trains to visit family for Christmas" but did not elaborate.

Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a right-wing government to back down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.

The prospect of a protracted standoff has businesses fearing big losses during the crucial year-end festivities, and travelers worried that their holiday plans will fall through.

On Friday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe asked SNCF chief Jean-Pierre Farandou to draw up a list of exactly which trains would be running during the festive season.

Philippe told the Parisien daily in an interview for its Sunday edition that the French would not accept being "deprived" of festive transport options.

"I can well see that everyone is worried as they see Christmas near. Christmas is an important time.

"Everybody must take their responsibilities. I do not think the French would accept people depriving them of this moment," Philippe warned.

But unions said they would not give in, and that the government would have to.

"If the government wants the conflict to end before the holidays, they have all of next week to take the wise decision and scrap the point-based pension plan," Laurent Blum, the general secretary of the hard-line CGT-Cheminots, the main SNCF union, told AFP.

"Historic reform"

The reform would do away with 42 separate regimes, some of which offer early retirement and other benefits to public sector workers such as train drivers, dockers and even Paris Opera employees.

The strike organizers have announced a massive protest for Tuesday when tens of thousands are expected to take to the streets again.

Meanwhile, teachers, who have been mobilized since the start of the protest, on Friday gained guarantees from the government of salary reviews which would cost the state 10 billion euros ($11.12 billion). The details were not revealed.

Policemen meanwhile ended their protest on Friday after managing to get assurances that their early retirement scheme would be maintained, owing to the "dangerous" nature of their job.

Both Paris operas, the Garnier and the Bastille, canceled Friday performances, and more through the weekend.

President Emmanuel Macron's government insists the changes will make for a fairer system and help erase pension system deficits forecast to reach as much as 17 billion euros by 2025.

The average French person retires at just over 60, years earlier than most in Europe or other rich OECD countries.

Prime Minister Philippe has held talks with union leaders and more negotiations are scheduled over the coming week.

Philippe on Friday struck a combative note, saying he "has absolutely no fear of implementing this reform."

Macron, who has maintained a studied silence since the protests began, told reporters in Brussels on Friday that it was a "historic reform," while expressing solidarity with those affected by the fallout.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter