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France: Christmas travel in disarray as strikes reach 20th consecutive day

Christmas Eve in France was set to be marred by the nearly three-week standoff between French train drivers and the government over pension reforms.

France: Christmas travel in disarray as strikes reach 20th consecutive day
Photo: GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

Now in its 20th day, the walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day on Wednesday. 

Workers at the national SNCF and Parisian 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.

READ: How will strikes impact Christmas travel?

There will be no surprises under the Christmas tree for those keen to travel on Tuesday, with up to 40 percent of high-speed rail and express regional trains cancelled, along with up to 20 percent of other trains.

The SNCF has also announced that on Tuesday evening trains between Paris and its suburbs will be halted. Some lines will reopen Wednesday morning, others only on Thursday.

Laurent Brun of the hard-line CGT union, said strikers have a “set of plans to celebrate Christmas” together while maintaining action all week-long.

READ: Paris cafés and restaurants see profits tumble as strikes enter third week

Talks between the government and unions last week failed to find middle ground, and strikers vowed there would be no holiday truce unless the pension overhaul plan was scrapped.

Trade unions and others involved in the strike will meet with the government on January 7 to discuss the pension reforms, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's office said Monday. The talks are set to run through the month of January.

On Saturday and Sunday, the last weekend before Christmas, the SCNF provided half the usual number of TGV high-speed trains, a third of regional TER services, a quarter of intercity trains, and one in five connecting Paris to its outer suburbs.

Unions are angry about the government's plans, which would see some public employees — notably railway staff — lose early-retirement and other benefits.

The government insists the new system would be fairer and more transparent.

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 — a cherished holiday for many French people.

But their action is taking a heavy toll on businesses, especially retailers, hotels and restaurants, during what should be one of the busiest periods of the year.

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STRIKES

French customs officers strike over job cuts

Customs officers across France will walk out on Thursday in protest at job cuts that unions say will “weaken the customs network”.

French customs officers strike over job cuts

The national strike on Thursday, March 10th is expected to lead to delays at ports, airports and on the Eurostar.

The strike, which will include a rally outside the National Assembly building in Paris, was called by the CFDT-Douane and has the support of other unions. 

A work-to-rule protest over pay and conditions by customs officers in 2019, under the shadow of Brexit, led to delays and disruption at airports, as well as ports including Calais and Dunkirk, and on Eurostar trains.

Unions are calling on the government to axe plans to switch responsibility for import duty collection to the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques by 2024, at the cost of 700 customs’ officer jobs – and, according to strikers, tens of billions of euros to State coffers.

“We are asking for the reforms to be stopped, mainly that of the transfer of taxation, which is disorganising the network with the elimination of nearly a thousand jobs,” CFDT-Douane’s secretary general David-Olivier Caron said.

The planned job cuts come after years of restructuring and streamlining that has seen thousands of positions disappear, the unions say, when customs fraud and smuggling is rising because of a lack of resources.

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