Why is France's transport network mired in strikes and what does it mean for British travellers?

World

France is currently embroiled in a series of travel strikes that threaten to bring the country to its knees. 

Emmanuel Macron’s government is facing a “spring of discontent” 50 years on from the famous protests of May 1968, as parallel disputes involving the country’s key transport players conspire to create nightmarish conditions.

An effigy of the young president, in power for less than a year, has already been set ablaze in Nantes at a time when Mr Macron is preoccupied with events in Syria.

His approval rating has meanwhile dropped from 57 per cent to 40 per cent since his inauguration.

Just 11 per cent of France’s workforce is unionised, among the lowest in the EU, but its trade bodies retain powerful voices and are not afraid to risk public ire to defend their rights.

Why are French railway workers on strike?

The country’s railway workers are engaged in industrial action over proposed reforms to the SNCF, the national railway, which will be opened up to competition in 2020 in line with EU requirements.

SNCF employees currently receive automatic annual pay rises, receive 28 days of paid annual leave, are allowed to retire at 50 and are entitled to free tickets for family members.

These perks will be lost under the contractual reforms proposed, which will mean an end to jobs-for-life for new hires.

The SNCF is presently £40bn in debt and operating at a loss of £5,000 a minute.

France’s rail lines are looking at 36 days of strikes in total, two days out of every five from the period beginning on 3 April and scheduled to run until 28 June.

All four of France’s main rail unions are involved. In total, 77 per cent of drivers and 34 per cent of staff are downing tools.

Why are Air France staff taking action?

Air France pilots, cabin crew and ground staff are also on strike – demanding a 6 per cent pay rise given that their wages have been frozen since 2011. The company is currently only offering a one per cent increase with added benefits and have been duly snubbed.

As a result, 30 per cent of Air France flights were grounded on Wednesday in a series of rolling two-day strikes: the first took place on 10 and 11 April, with more to follow on 17 and 18 and again on 23 and 24 of this month.

What does this mean for British travellers?

Eurostar trains between London and Paris have been hit this month as many cross-Channel drivers are SNCF, but the service was running as normal on Friday.

On domestic trains, just one in five high-speed TGVs are running, with one in five main lines and two in three regional trains operating normally.

Further disruption is expected on Saturday before normal services resume on Sunday.

Flights to Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh from Paris Charles de Gaulle have all been cancelled this month over Air France’s action but flights should be running as normal in the run-up to the next round of strikes on Tuesday.

Passengers with tickets booked on the dates of the forthcoming round of strikes have been invited to switch to flights taking off between 15 and 22 April and 25 and 30 April.

The Foreign Office is meanwhile advising travellers to check with airlines before embarking for the airport.

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