“Black Tuesday” signalled the beginning of three months of strike action over President Emmanuel Macron’s rail reform plans
French railway strikes cause misery for passengers
Nationwide rail strikes caused misery for passengers in France on Tuesday as the country prepared itself for months of potential travel disruption.
The industrial action was taken in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to modernise the French economy and is due to continue for the next three months, affecting two days in every five.
Europe also saw flights grounded as a systems failure at a continent-wide flight plan processing system affected half of the days flights and limited departures at Brussels Airport to 10 per hour.
"Today 29,500 flights were expected in the European network. Approximately half of those could have some delay as a result of the system outage," European network manager Eurocontrol said.
In France, workers from the national carrier walked out on Tuesday following a dispute over pay. However, Air France said 75 per cent of flights were expected to run as normal.
The air travel disruption added to the problems caused by the rail strikes, which began on Monday evening and are set to continue through Wednesday, is being observed by the four main rail unions and led by state railway SNCF.
SCNF said the strike would affect 85 per cent of France's high-speed trains and 75 per cent of regional trains. Almost 80 per cent of SCNF workers are on strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Black Tuesday”, as it has been called by the French media, saw severe disruptions as services were cancelled and delayed.
In Paris, where just one in four train services ran, pictures posted on social media showed crowded platforms. At the capital’s Gare De Lyon, a woman had to be helped off the tracks after falling due to overcrowding.
The strikes present the biggest challenge to Mr Macron’s leadership since he was elected in May 2017.
The French President wants to turn SCNF into a profit-making enterprise before the state railways are opened up to competition, in line with EU requirements, from 2023. Mr Macron is planning to phase out SCNF’s generous contracts, which include automatic annual pay rises, protection against dismissal, early retirement and free tickets for workers’ family members.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that the government would stand firm on its reform plans for the SNCF, which he said required 14 billion euros (Dh63bn) of public money annualy.
"I must say that I hear the strikers, who speak fervently at times, as much as I hear those who do not accept this strike," Mr Philippe said.
While Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said labour unions were making the reform plans into a political issue.
However, labour unions hit back at the government’s portrayal of railway workers.
"This little melody being sung of 'privileged railway workers' is intolerable," said Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union. "The salaries aren't amazing, the work conditions are difficult, and for some it means working every other weekend."
Mr Martinez told France Inter radio: "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,"
International services, including the Eurostar from London to Paris and Brussels to Lille, as well as trains to Germany, were also affected by the strike action.
The disruption is set to continue on Wednesday as all trains from France to Switzerland and Italy have been cancelled.