French rail workers issue Christmas strike threat

It wouldn’t be holiday time in France without a strike threat - and this Christmas is no different. Rail unions are planning co-ordinated walkouts in key regions in a dispute over pay and working conditions.

Travellers, in facemasks, head towards a train at Paris's Gare de Lyon
Travellers, in face masks, head towards a train at Paris's Gare de Lyon. Rail strikes are planned over the festive period. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin / AFP

Major French railways workers unions have called for a three-day strike of TGV Sud-Est and TGV Sud-Ouest services starting on Friday. 

The action planned by CGT-Cheminots, Sud-Rail, Unsa and FO-Cheminots unions coincides with schools breaking up for Christmas holidays and the weekend when many leave cities to visit family in the countryside. 

TGV Sud-Est services could be hit by two more three-day strikes planned for every weekend over the festive holiday period. Meanwhile, employees of TGV Atlantique are set to walkout ‘from Friday’, following a strike call from Sud Rail union there. 

A deal must be reached before Thursday if the walkouts are to be avoided, unions have warned, while the government has pledged to, “bring everyone around the table … [to] minimise the impact of this strike.”

Trains heading to southern France from Paris’s Gare de Lyon – including services that stop at Dijon, Besançon, Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand, Marseille, Perpignan and Nice – will be among those affected if the strike goes ahead as scheduled.

Unions are calling for improved working conditions, additional hiring to make up for insufficient staffing levels, wage increases to end an eight-year pay freeze and ‘a Covid bonus’.

“For two years we have been working in the midst of the Covid era and we have not had a Covid bonus,” said Sud-Rail union delegate Fabien Villedieu to RTL. “This dispute has transformed into anger. The pay issue does not only concern the rail network.

“The management still has a few days to negotiate and make proposals and if they fail to take action, we will strike.”

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Drought-hit Mont Blanc shuts shelters to dissuade hikers

Authorities in the French Alps said Friday they had closed down two popular mountain shelters used by Mont Blanc climbers because of potentially deadly drought-related rockfalls.

Drought-hit Mont Blanc shuts shelters to dissuade hikers

In a year marked by drought and heatwaves, rockfalls and gaping crevices have made access to the top of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain, even more difficult and perilous.

The mayor’s office in the Mont Blanc village of Saint-Gervais, said climbers were in “mortal danger” from rocks and shards coming loose because of dry weather and dropping from a height.

“All day long, we still see climbers going on the mountain range, all the time, as if this was Disneyland or the Parc Asterix,” said Saint-Gervais mayor Jean-Marc Peillex, in reference to two popular theme parks near Paris.

Hikers had been advised since last month to stay away because of the danger, but “they just don’t give a damn,” he told AFP.

READ MORE: ‘To pay funeral costs’ – Why Mont Blanc mayor wants to charge climbers

The closure of the two mountain shelters — Gouter with 120 overnight spots and Tete Rousse with 74, as well as a base camp accommodating up to 50 people — was to “show clearly that there is no accommodation available”.

The authorities had warned for weeks that falling rocks were a danger, he said, adding that crossing the Gouter mountain corridor represented “a mortal danger”, he said.

Nevertheless, 79 people stayed at the Gouter shelter Thursday night, he said.

The shelters will remain shut until normal weather conditions return, the mayor said, probably not before early September.

Peillex had warned Wednesday that Saint-Gervais would require a deposit of €15,000 from each hiker, saying the sum represented the average cost of a rescue operation and a funeral.

He was, however, advised that French law offers no basis for such a move.

A lack of snow during the winter has laid bare vast areas of greyish glacier — yellowish where sand dust from the Sahara has accumulated — riven with fractures on the Mont Blanc.

The heat did the rest, causing the fragile snow bridges to melt that make it possible to cross the crevasses, as well as leading to landslides.

Following several heatwaves, France is in the grip of severe drought, blamed by scientists on climate change.

On Friday, 100 municipalities across the country were without drinking water, Environment Minister Christophe Bechu said.

Calling the drought “historic”, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called a crisis meeting Friday to seek solutions.

Scientists say human-induced climate change is amplifying extreme weather — including the heatwaves, droughts and floods seen in several parts of the planet in recent weeks — and say these events will become more frequent and more intense.

The international community has agreed that climate change poses an existential threat to human systems and the natural world.