“It will be very slow,” the woman behind the ticket window at Brussels Central station tells me. She looks at me like I’m making a big mistake – she would turn out to be right.
Getting to France from Brussels to cover the rail strikes that are paralysing the country is proving rather difficult. It’s normally a breezy half an hour to Lille on a high speed TGV from The Independent’s bureau in the Belgian capital, but those few services that are still running were booked up weeks in advance.
I had managed to snag a ticket on the Eurostar, but that was then cancelled too, so decide to do the entire journey by slow Belgian suburban services – which aren’t on strike despite sometimes venturing over the border into France. It would take a while, but get me there eventually, or so I thought.
An hour into my journey my optimism is shattered when a smartly uniformed train guard taps me on the shoulder. “Lille?” he asks. I nod, and he explains that the connecting Belgian service I was planning to take is now cancelled and I’ll have an extra hour’s wait at Tournai, the border city where I was planning to sneak into France.
I do my time at Tournai’s ornate station alongside a gaggle of other fools braving the industrial dispute, and my train to France finally pulls in. But before it has ground to a halt, déjà vu strikes. “Lille?” I turn around, and another guard is standing there. I nod, like last time. “There is no Lille… they are blocking the way.”
It turns out the French rail workers have anticipated my crafty workaround and, as well as stopping French services, have now physically blockaded the tracks to prevent Belgian trains getting anywhere near France as well. Of the dozen other travellers I am standing with, one looks distraught – but most shrug and accept that this is the way of things. “It’s a strike,” one man tells me. “It’s how it goes.” My train sits empty in the station, and will go no further.
British commuters may think they know about rail strikes, but the French do them properly. Workers are walking off the job for 36 days scattered throughout April, May and June, with as many as four stoppages at week. France has invested heavily in its high speed rail network since the 1970s, and the country now relies on TGV services to get things done.
When those trains don’t work, neither does the country. About 40 per cent of rail workers have participated in the strikes so far, and SNCF, the French national railway company, says it is running just one in three services and is urging passengers to stay away. Some cities also have separate strikes on their local bus and metro systems, with workers in, for example, Rouen taking 55 minutes out a day until late April – just enough to mess up timetables.
You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but in France only around 8 per cent of workers are union members – far fewer than even in Britain, where about 25 per cent of employees pay dues. But despite the low membership across the economy, unionised workers are highly concentrated and more prepared to take direct action – like blockading international railway tracks.
The reason behind the national rail strike is Emmanuel Macron’s plans to cut conditions for workers on the French railways. The government wants to end guaranteed job security and early pensions for SNCF employees, and says the move to cut workers’ compensation is the only way to reduce the €47bn in legacy debt the national rail company has on its books. But the industrial dispute has taken on wider political connotations, and has turned into a key test for Macron’s liberalising economic agenda – with comparisons inevitably drawn to Margaret Thatcher and the miners’ strike.
The French president made his first major statement on the strike in a television interview on Thursday, pledging that he would not back down. “We must go to the end, because we have to make this reform. It is indispensable. It would be hypocritical not to do it; we need a strong French railway,” he told TF1. “The reform requires a little effort from everyone. Users have made efforts, prices have increased. We ask the company, SNCF, that it must reorganise.”
But union leaders have taken an equally tough stance. “We’re going to have a marathon if the government forces it,” Laurent Brun of the CGT rail union said on Friday after two days of talks with government negotiators. He hinted that the strike could be extended beyond its scheduled end on 28 June if the government did not back down or make concessions.
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Public opinion appears to be swinging behind the government, with one Ifop poll carried out in early April showing 62 per cent in favour of the Macron’s changes, an increase of 11 per cent from the end of March. But the dispute is polarising the French public, with unions pointing to a €460,000 strike fund gathered from 14,000 donors to replace wages lost during the strike.
Despite apparently having the public on his side, Emmanuel Macron’s personal popularity has not yet benefited. Still the most unpopular French president in recent history, Mr Macron saw an 11 per cent slide in his approval rating at the start of the strike, wiping out a bounce at the start of the year.
I never did manage to get into France, despite a close and futile study of local bus timetables. Whatever one thinks of the stoppages, in an age of crippled trade unions and declining workers’ power, French railway employees still have the power to bring their country to a standstill, and are not afraid to use it. This is one dispute will not be resolved any time soon.