SNCF railway workers gather for their organised Christmas banquet in front of the Les Aubrais station on Monday near Orleans, France. Guillaume Souvant/ AFP
Christmas Eve in France was set to be marred by the nearly three-week standoff between French train drivers and the government over pension reforms.
Now in its 20th day, the walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day on Wednesday.
Workers at the national SNCF and Parisian RATP rail and public transport companies have downed tools to protest at the government’s plan to meld France’s 42 pension schemes into a single points-based one, which would see some public employees lose certain privileges.
There will be no surprises under the Christmas tree for those keen to travel on Tuesday, with up to 40 per cent of high-speed rail and express regional trains cancelled, along with up to 20 per cent of other trains.
The SNCF has also announced that on Tuesday evening trains between Paris and its suburbs will be halted. Some lines will reopen on Wednesday morning, others only on Thursday.
Laurent Brun of the hard-line CGT union, said strikers have a “set of plans to celebrate Christmas” together while maintaining action all week-long.
Talks between the government and unions last week failed to find middle ground, and strikers vowed there would be no holiday truce unless the pension overhaul plan was scrapped.
Trade unions and others involved in the strike will meet with the government on Jan.7 to discuss the pension reforms, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s office said on Monday. The talks are set to run through the month of January.
On Saturday and Sunday, the last weekend before Christmas, the SCNF provided half the usual number of TGV high-speed trains, a third of regional TER services, a quarter of intercity trains, and one in five connecting Paris to its outer suburbs.
Unions are angry about the government’s plans, which would see some public employees — notably railway staff — lose early-retirement and other benefits.
The government insists the new system would be fairer and more transparent.
Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas — a cherished holiday for many French people.
But their action is taking a heavy toll on businesses, especially retailers, hotels and restaurants, during what should be one of the busiest periods of the year.
France was set to be paralysed on Thursday by a nationwide strike by transport workers, teachers and other professionals in a showdown between unions and President Emmanuel Macron over his planned pension reforms.
Union leaders have vowed to keep up their protest unless Macron drops the pension overhaul, the latest move in the centrist president's push to reform wide swathes of the French economy.
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.
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The NCM appealed to the public to be careful and exercise caution while driving during the rain, as well as when the horizontal visibility is not clear, due to rain and winds that raise dust and dirt.