France faces second day of transport chaos as rail workers continue strike

France faced a second day of transport chaos Wednesday as rail workers pursued rolling strikes, causing major disruptions for train travellers in the biggest challenge yet to President Emmanuel Macron's resolve to push through sweeping reforms.

France faces second day of transport chaos as rail workers continue strike
Photo: AFP

Main info on Wednesday

  • Passengers advised not to go to stations if train is cancelled
  • TGV high speed services hit. Only 1 in 7 operating
  • TER regional trains running at 20 percent of normal service
  • Only 1 in 8 Intercité trains running
  • Only around a quarter of trains running in Paris region
  • All RER services disrupted to varying extents
  • International trains including Eurostar also impacted to lesser degree 
  • Paris Metro service running as normal

Only one in seven high-speed TGV trains and one in five regional trains were expected to be running, state rail operator SNCF warned, after similar stoppages on the first day of the walkout that French media dubbed “Black Tuesday”.

The strike is being led by SNCF staff but workers at Air France as well as garbage collectors and some energy workers also staged separate walkouts in a growing atmosphere of social strife 11 months after 40-year-old Macron came to power.

Macron's government says the heavily-indebted SNCF needs deep reforms as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020, arguing it is 30 percent more expensive to run a train in France than elsewhere.

Unions fear the changes are a first step towards privatising the national rail operator — a claim the government denies — and object to plans to strip
new hires of a special rail workers' status guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement.

More than three-quarters of train drivers joined the first day of the walkout.

With stoppages planned for two days out of five until June 28, weeks of disruption lie ahead for France's 4.5 million daily train passengers.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe admitted Tuesday that people using the SNCF rail network have “difficult days ahead of them”.

At Lille station in northeastern France, 56-year-old passenger Marc Cornille was worried the disruption could cost him his temporary job contract.

“I understand their demands, just not the way they're going about it,” he said of the rail workers.

Francoise Sirugue, an insurance worker who commutes from Dijon to Paris, said three months of nightmare travel was “a bit too much”.

“I stayed at home yesterday,” she said. “But I can't do that every day.”

The lack of trains prompted a second day of gridlock in the Paris region Wednesday as commuters took to the roads instead, with traffic website Sytadin reporting 350 kilometres (220 miles) of tailbacks — double the usual amount.

Four unions were set to meet with transport ministry officials Wednesday afternoon to discuss their bones of contention with the government, which
include plans to turn the SNCF into a publicly owned company.

Unions fear this could eventually lead to the mammoth rail operator being privatised, something repeatedly denied by the government.

Biggest challenge

The rail strikes are being seen as the biggest challenge yet to Macron's sweeping plans to shake up France and make it more competitive, earning comparisons with Margaret Thatcher's showdown with British coal unions in 1984.

“We have been asking for the same thing for several weeks — that the government completely reconsider its plan. They need to start again from scratch,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, told France Inter radio.

The strike was accompanied by demonstrations supporting the rail workers by some 2,700 people in Paris, according to police, with a group of around 100 becoming violent and five people arrested.

Protests also took place in other cities around France representing the biggest wave of industrial unrest since Macron came to power last May.

The railways are a bastion of trade unionism in France and have forced governments into U-turns in the past during major stoppages.

“For Macron, the test is really starting today,” labour market economist Andrea Garnero from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) told AFP.

“Unions are still able to gather support when they go on strike in France, although maybe less so than in the past,” he added.

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French rail strikers resort to sabotage as movement grows militant

French rail chiefs reported 50 different acts of malicious sabotage on train lines on Monday with authorities fearing strikers will increasingly take matters into their own hands to keep up the pressure on the government.

French rail strikers resort to sabotage as movement grows militant
Photo: AFP

SNCF have lodged official complaints over some 50 acts of sabotage on train lines during Monday's day of strike action by rail workers.

Fewer and fewer rail staff have been taking part in the strikes as the weeks have gone on but Monday, the 18th day of the ongoing rolling strikes, was dubbed “the day without rail workers” and saw a jump in the number of rail workers downing tools compared to recent strike day.

The UNSA union had said it was “vital to deal a heavy blow” to pressure the government into making concessions.

But it appeared some strikers resorted to illegal action in order to create chaos on the trains.

Cables were also mysteriously cut in the southern port of Marseille that led to a power outage across the whole of the St Charles train station and overhead cables were also cut in the northwestern region of Normandy, in what the SNCF said appeared to be deliberate acts of sabotage aimed at further snarling traffic. 

“There were about fifty incidents of varying levels,” said a spokesperson for SNCF.

“They ranged from disturbances at level crossings to losing keys to offices, and of course the power cut in Marseille and the cutting of an overhead line in Normandy, ” said the spokesman.

SNCF described the cutting of the overhead cable in Normandy as a ” a highly technical deliberate act”.

“It was obvious it was an act of sabotage,” said the spokesperson before adding that French police will investigate the matter.

Even after power was restored in Marseille, rail workers and protesting students took to the tracks to block trains.

The SNCF believe these militant acts are a sign that the ongoing conflict over between unions and the government over plans to reform the heavily indebted SNCF is petering out.

“Generally these kind of acts happen at he end of a conflict,” said SNCF's deputy general director Mathias Vicherat. “We consider that these acts are a misapplication of the right to strike.”

While Monday saw a jump in participation, the percentage of rail workers taking part in the strike had fallen to 14.5 percent. Unions also know that public opinion and time appears to be against them. 

Opinion polls suggest a majority of French voters back the reforms. The lower house of parliament has already given them the green light, and the Senate is to vote on them this month.

But with the strikes to run until the end of June, rail passengers can expect more disruption caused by sabotage in the weeks to come.