Commuters in France Face Chaos as SNCF Strike Rages On

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In reaction to President Emmanuel Macron’s labor reforms aiming to make France more competitive economically and reduce debt, the employees of the state-owned railway company, SNCF, have begun a three-month strike that has already severely disrupted travel and commutes across the country and internationally. Train shortages are planned for two out of every five days, and within that framework, certain numbers of trains per day will not run.

As politicians and labor unions duke it out, tens of millions of commuters and travelers find themselves the unwilling victims of this stand-off, delayed or stranded without transportation.

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While many French workers have resorted to driving to work and vacation destinations, causing severe traffic congestion on highways around major cities, travelers without cars have far fewer choices in the midst of the strike. With the capital’s major commuter lines—mainly the RER and Transilien—running on limited schedules, commuting to and from central Paris with sky-high Uber rates is leaving commuters quite cash-strapped. An Uber to get to a zone 3 banlieue is setting consumers back close to 30€, and surge pricing can elevate that cost to well over 50€.

For those with a greater creativity and desperation, new alternative-transit companies have emerged as the saviors to meet the demand of those stranded by the strikes. Deputies in the National Assembly have made publicity stunts to share their cars with constituents,  such as Robin Reda (LR). Even searches for hitchhiking spiked during the early outset of the strike.

In terms of travel, high-speed rail trains that normally are a marvel for American tourists are turning into a nightmare. Only one in eight TGV trains will run on affected days, which, because they usually come back-to-back, causes nearly unprecedented backlogs of delayed travelers around the time many American spring-breakers arrive and French schools go on vacation. Three out of four international trains will run on affected days, which should somewhat insulate the impact of the strike for those backpacking (on foot or by car) across Europe, but will wreak havoc on any kind of train-based Euro-trip.

There are approximately 3,000 train stations and 18,600 miles of track in France. In 2016, there were 1.4 million rail passengers.
A wide-reaching system: There are approximately 3,000 train stations and 18,600 miles of track in France. In 2016, there were 1.4 million rail passengers.

To give an idea of how severe the strike would be in the states, imagine if 77% of Amtrak drivers went on strike at any given time, much less for a planned three months. Or if more than half of LIRR and Metro-North trains stopped running.

An important question is whether Macron’s reforms will be better for consumers, or the strike (and resulting back-down of Macron) is actually in the best interests of the scores of workers and tourists who use France’s railways. The answer cuts to the heart of the quintessentially French identity crisis of modernization versus tradition the country has been going through for some time, which President Macron has opened up like a barely-healed wound.

The SNCF is heavily in debt, largely at the hands of generous pensions and benefits for its employees. Like in almost all French businesses, it is almost impossible to lay off workers despite changing economic conditions. To boot, SNCF workers are entitled to annual pay raises, early retirement (age 52), pensions, subsidized housing, job security, and free train travel for themselves and their families.

The two main proposals Macron is making are to phase out the special SNCF worker benefits and have new employees apply like any other government worker, and to open up the rail line for competitive bidding by 2023, in line with European Union regulations.

Though Macron’s plan is intended to make the SNCF more efficient and competitive in Europe, critics argue it paves the way to privatization, which union workers would see as a fatal blow to the country’s socialist infrastructure.

Those measures, objectively, would make train service better not only for travelers but also for commuters, who have felt especially pinched in recent years with declining service, notably on the Parisian RER lines that connect the suburbs to the center of the city.

Yet French culture has long ignored convenience in favor of a better quality of life for the worker, which is what draws many to the country in the first place. The SNCF strike calls into question to what extent that is any longer possible in the modern, globalized economy.

Macron’s République En Marche! party spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, called for an end to “this country’s strike culture,” which many foreigners have enough cursory knowledge of to consistently make it the butt of jokes at the expense of the French. Yet in France, the comment has a more serious connotation to the career of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who evoked the same sentiment alongside his notorious racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Perhaps this strike will pass and lead to a compromise that will both value rail workers and improve conditions for travelers and commuters, but in the meantime, disgruntled tourists and exasperated commuters should expect long lines in rail stations and for plans to change, at least every two in five days.