Tourists, commuters seek workarounds to French train strikes
PARIS (AP) — Tourists abandoned travel plans and French commuters squeezed into scarce trains Wednesday as one of the world’s most-traveled rail networks endured a second consecutive day of strike action.
Rail unions and French 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.
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. It’s arguably his biggest challenge since he took the presidency last year.
The SNCF rail authority said 86 percent of trains were canceled nationwide Wednesday, though the number of striking workers fell slightly compared to Tuesday’s strike kickoff day. Strike action is being planned for the coming three months.
Traffic is expected to resume Thursday, though with some knock-on delays, with the next strikes scheduled for Sunday and Monday.
The walkouts are also hitting international traffic: Almost no trains operated Wednesday between France and Italy, Spain or Switzerland while about a dozen Eurostar trains to and from Britain have been canceled. Traffic to Belgium and Germany also dipped.
British accountant Elaine Clark has been dreaming for years of visiting the south of France and was scheduled to visit Cannes this week for the first time. But the trip was cancelled Wednesday, the day before she was set to leave.
A strike is scheduled for the return date Monday, and the travel agency couldn’t be sure her group of 40 travelers will be able to get home.
While disappointed, she welcomed the “common sense” decision to cancel.
“Monday we could be sitting there, checked out of our hotel room, with our luggage and no hope of a train, and 40-odd people to accommodate,” she said. And even if they were to make it on a train, there would likely be large, frustrated crowds, making the journey anything but restful.
Clark hopes to recoup the 1,000 pounds ($1,400) she already spent on the trip, including travel from her home in Cheshire to London, the Eurostar to Paris and then connections to Cannes.
American travel agents and the British government were among those issuing warnings to tourists. The strike comes at a time of heavy travel, just after the Easter holidays and as schools around Europe have spring breaks.
Many visitors are finding ways to adapt — sharing travel tips online and saturating car-sharing apps.
The French Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that it’s too early to tell whether it will impact France’s important tourism sector, which took in some 89 million visitors last year and is back on the upswing after suffering from a string of deadly attacks in 2015 and 2016.
While strikes are common in France, 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.
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.
The French public seems torn about what’s going on.
“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,” said passenger Said Mohammed, speaking to The Associated Press at the Saint-Lazare station in northern Paris, where commuters packed into trains or waited on overflowing platforms. “We can’t be in this conflict forever.”