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07.12.2019 Europe

Travel turmoil grips France as strikes enter second day

AFP/Philippe Lopez
LISTEN DEC 7, 2019
AFP/Philippe Lopez

Travellers faced a second day of chaos across France on Friday as unions pressed on with a strike aimed at forcing the government of President Emmanuel Macron to abandon pension reforms.

Dozens of trains, metros and flights were cancelled, many schools were again closed or offering only daycare, and four of the country's eight oil refineries remained blocked, raising the prospect of fuel shortages.

Little improvement expected over the weekend

Rail operator SNCF has already halted ticket sales for the weekend, with 90 percent of high-speed TGV trains again cancelled on Friday and little improvement expected over the weekend.

Half of the Eurostar trains linking Paris and London have been dropped from the schedule, and just two of three Thalys trains serving Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam were running.

"I was supposed to take a train to Metz (northeast France), I reserved my ticket three days ago but it's been cancelled and I've gotten no information," Rachel Pallamidessi told French news agency AFP at a deserted station in the north-eastern city of Strasbourg.

The strike is being seen as the latest test of President Macron's mettle after months of protests from teachers, hospital workers, police and firefighters, capping a year of social unrest triggered by the Yellow Vest citizens protest movement.

Unions say Macron's proposal for a single pension system, which would eliminate dozens of separate schemes applicable to public sector workers, would force millions to work well beyond the official retirement age of 62.

The government will unveil details of its plan next week but has already said people will have to work longer to maintain a system that could have a deficit of up to 17 billion euros by 2025.

Several airlines cancelled flights as air traffic controllers walked off the job, with Air France cancelling 30 percent of domestic flights and 10 percent of international routes.

Nine metro lines shut in Paris
In Paris, nine of the capital's 16 metro lines were shut while many others were running only during rush hours, prompting commuters to turn to bicycles, electric scooters and other alternatives.

But it remains to be seen if the protests will match the magnitude of the 1995 strikes against pension overhauls when France was paralysed for three weeks from November to December in an action that forced the government to back down.

Another day of strikes and rallies has been called for Tuesday, a day after union leaders are to meet again with government officials over the pension reform.

"There were lots of people on strike, now we need even more if we want to influence these decisions," Philippe Martinez of the hard-line CGT union told LCI television.

So far Emmanuel Macron has not spoken publicly on the stoppages though a presidential official, who asked not to be named, said on Thursday that the president was "calm" and "determined to carry out this reform" in a mood of "listening and consultation".

(with AFP)