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Tourists, commuters seek workarounds to French train strikes
Published Wednesday, April 4, 2018 7:10AM EDT
Striking railway workers attend a general assembly in the Lille Flandres station, northern France, Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
PARIS -- Tourists rearranged their travel plans and French commuters squeezed into scarce trains Wednesday, as Day 2 of a three-month strike hobbled one of the world's most-travelled rail networks.
Rail unions and President Emmanuel Macron's government are holding firm so far 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 some 86 per cent of trains were cancelled nationwide Wednesday, with a slightly small percentage of regional trains halted.
At the Gare Saint-Lazare in northern Paris, passengers packed painfully into trains or waited on overflowing platforms.
"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.
American 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.
Tourists and commuters alike know that strikes are common in France, and shared travel tips online and saturated car-sharing apps.
It's 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's different this time is that unions are threatening rolling strikes over such a long period -- a few days every week through the end of June.
And the stakes are high this time for both the unions and Macron, facing his biggest challenge yet since he took the presidency last year.
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.
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 Wednesday 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 the Saint-Lazare station in Paris.
Commuter Sandrine Allain-Jaoul, 46, blamed the government for worsening tensions with workers and said the SNCF should be able to keep its special public service role.
"We shouldn't forget the rural areas where the trains are really important," she said. Criticizing 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."