Test for Macron as massive French rail strike begins

PARIS • Commuters across France faced severe disruptions yesterday as rail workers launched three months of rolling strikes, a major test of President Emmanuel Macron's resolve to reshape the country through sweeping reforms.

More than three-quarters of train drivers joined the first day of the walkout, according to the SNCF, the heavily indebted state rail operator which Mr Macron wants to overhaul. But overall, only a third of staff were on strike, the company said.

Only one in eight high-speed TGV trains and a fifth of regional trains were running on what the media has dubbed "black Tuesday". And with stoppages planned for two days out of five until June 28, weeks of disruption lie ahead for France's 4.5 million daily train passengers.

"We have been asking for the same thing for several weeks - that the government completely reconsider its plan. They need to start again from scratch," Mr Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, told France Inter radio.

Staff at Air France and garbage collectors are among others staging separate walkouts, in a growing atmosphere of social strife 11 months after Mr Macron came to power.

Public support for the rail strike stands at just below half, according to an Ifop poll released on Sunday.

As commuters took to the roads instead, the streets of Paris were choked with an "exceptional" 370km of traffic jams during the morning rush hour before easing, according to traffic website Sytadin.

At the capital's busy Gare du Lyon station, the platforms were so crammed that a woman fell onto the tracks and had to be helped out by fellow commuters. But major regional stations including Nice, Lille and Marseille were almost deserted as people anticipated cancellations.

Thanks to the Internet, many commuters could work from home.

Three-quarters of Eurostar trains to London and Brussels were running yesterday, and Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands were operating almost normally, but there were none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland.

At Air France, where staff are striking for the fourth time in a month to demand a pay rise, managers said 75 per cent of flights would operate. Further walkouts are planned for April 7, 10 and 11.

There was no respite expected before the second day of walkouts today, and the economy is set to take a hit as the strike rumbles on. Mr Alain Krakovitch, chief of SNCF's Transilien network, estimated the cost of the strike at "between €10 million and €20 million (S$16 million to S$32 million) a day".

But Mr Macron says the SNCF, saddled with €46.6 billion of debt, needs to drastically improve its efficiency and cut running costs as European Union countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Test for Macron as massive French rail strike begins'. Print Edition | Subscribe