French rail strikes ease as Macron vows he won’t back down

A protester wearing a mask bearing President Emmanuel Macron's face at a demonstration by state rail operator SNCF workers in Marseille, southern France
AFP

Paris (France) (AFP) – French travellers on Friday faced a third wave of rolling train strikes which appeared to be easing off despite determination from rail union leaders to oppose President Emmanuel Macron’s reform plans.

Train drivers and other staff launched the first strikes on April 3 as part of three months of planned stoppages in a bid to force Macron to back down on plans for an overhaul of the heavily indebted state rail operator SNCF.

They are set to continue two days out of every five until June 28, causing havoc for France’s 4.5 million daily train passengers.

“I try to stay calm. That’s all you can do. But it’s still a pain,” commuter Gregory Gaule told AFP as he waited for a commuter train at the Gare du Nord station in Paris.

Macron has vowed to persevere in his high-stakes battle with unions, which have lessened in intensity since they began.

The SNCF said 38 percent of the staff necessary for operating trains were taking part in Friday’s strike — a marked drop from 48 percent in the first strikes last week, though a slight three percent increase from the second wave on Sunday.

Only a third of high-speed TGV and regional TER trains were running Friday, up from last week’s strike when as few as one in eight TGVs ran.

Macron insisted on Thursday that he would push on with reforms designed to make the SNCF cheaper to operate as European passenger rail markets open to competition from 2020.

“I am going to see this through to the end,” he told TF1 in his first public remarks on a standoff that commentators have compared to late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s battle with coal unions.

Some unions reacted angrily to Macron’s speech, saying it made them even more determined to push on with their strike action, but the head of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, said Friday there had been progress in recent discussions. 

Commuters said they were tired of the delays but were finding ways of managing, while many families adjusted their travel plans at the start of school holidays which begin this weekend for the Paris area.

“I had an appointment in Paris this morning. Since they reduced the trains, I got up earlier, but I was still late,” said university student Sarah Hayot.

“I’m a little torn, because I understand their demands, but we’re all getting fed up,” she said.

.