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'You don't strike at Christmas' - fury in France as trains cancelled

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AFP/The Local France - [email protected]
'You don't strike at Christmas' - fury in France as trains cancelled
Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP

More than one third of scheduled trains for the Christmas weekend have been cancelled, amid anger at French rail unions pushing ahead with strike action over the holiday weekend that has seen more 200,000 left without transport.

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Just two in five services are scheduled to run over the Christmas weekend when millions of French people are expected to travel for family gatherings.

The worst affected services were high-speed TGV lines, the mainstay of long-distance rail travel in France, leading to a rush for flights, rental cars and car-pooling.

"I understand their demands but do they have to go on strike during the festivities?" Isabelle Barrier, whose train to southwestern Toulouse was cancelled, told AFP in Paris.

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"They couldn't give a damn about people! If they want to strike, I understand, but not the Christmas weekend!" said Emilio Quintana, a father struggling to find a ticket to Marseille, told AFP.

It is common for striking workers to declare a trève (truce) is strike action falls over Christmas weekend, to allow people to travel to visit family, although the 2019 transport strikes of December and January continued over Christmas with no truce. 

SNCF's travel division boss Christophe Fanichet apologised to travellers on Wednesday and called the strike action by ticket inspectors - launched without union backing - "scandalous" and "unacceptable".

"You don't strike at Christmas," agreed government spokesman Olivier Véran.

Transport minister Clément Beaune, whose own TGV home for Christmas is reported to have been cancelled, called on the workers to show "responsibility" and it is understood that Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been involved in negotiations to try and avert the strike. 

In a country where strike action is common and generally accepted, the Christmas action has provoked unusual anger, with Elysée sources briefing that Emmanuel Macron "considers the strike to show a total absence of empathy, solidarity and fraternity".

Faced with high inflation, ticket inspectors are demanding a further pay hike beyond the 12 percent increase already negotiated which will take effect over two years, according to the SNCF.

But unions involved in the negotiations reportedly could not agree whether to push ahead with the Christmas strikes, and in the end left a strike notice in place but did not call for strike action - leaving the decision up to workers in local areas.

Annual inflation is running at around 6 percent in France, lower than most other European countries which are also facing public sector strikes.

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Neighbouring Britain has been hit by a wave of stoppages from rail workers, as well as nurses, passport control workers and ambulance drivers.

READ ALSO How strikes will affect Christmas travel between France and the UK

France's strike notice runs from Friday, December 23rd to Monday, December 26th. A further provisional notice is in place from Friday, December 30th to Monday, January 2nd.  

According to the SNCF website earlier, half or more of scheduled trains for the weekend had been cancelled on key routes such as Paris to Rennes, western France, or Paris to Bordeaux, in the southwest.

Half the services to Spain have been slashed, and a third of those to Italy.

The rail operator promised re-bookings free of charge, including for more expensive seats, but most TGVs were already fully booked on Wednesday.

It also offered to give out vouchers worth twice the original ticket price to people whose trains have been cancelled. This applies to those who manage to exchange their tickets.

But travellers queueing at railway stations said that was not much of a consolation for a ruined holiday.

Mathilde, a 38-year-old Parisian whose train to Bordeaux was cancelled, said she was tempted to get on another train even without a ticket.

"I might try to force my way onto a train, although I'm not sure that will work," she said, adding: "I don't expect SNCF to be very understanding."

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