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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale
Sarah Elzas with RFI

Rush to ‘save’ holidays as French rail bosses negotiate with striking controllers

French railway controllers are striking this Christmas weekend, throwing travel plans for hundreds of thousands of people into chaos. AFP - DAMIEN MEYER

The French government is pressuring the rail company SNCF to come to an agreement with controllers, or ticket inspectors, who are asking for better recognition of their work. Not backed by unions, the inspectors are threatening to strike again next weekend, over New Year’s

"For this weekend, it’s unfortunately too late,” said SNCF boss Jean-Pierre Farandou on Thursday, but “there is no reason to punish French people twice” he said, calling on ticket inspectors to call off another strike planned for New Year’s weekend.

Ticket inspectors, or controllers, are crucial to the proper functioning of high speed TGV trains, and because of the strike, the SNCF has had to cut more than a third of scheduled trains over the Christmas weekend, when millions of French people are planning to travel for family gatherings.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire demanded that the SNCF come up with a solution.

Strike not backed by unions

SNCF management “has the support of the state, and must find ways and means to get out of this conflict” Le Maire told Sud Radio on Thursday.

Farandou, speaking to RTL radio, said that he would be meeting with unions Friday morning to find a solution.

However, unions have not backed the strike, which has been carried out by a group of ticket inspectors who have organised on social media, with a private Facebook group that reportedly counts some 3,600 members, about half of all ticket inspectors.

The group was behind a strike at the start of December, which stopped 60 percent of train travel.

Ticket inspectors say the hardship of their job is insufficiently recognised.

The SNCF said that it has already negotiated an average six percent pay increase for all rail workers in 2023, but the ticket inspectors are asking for a specific recognition of the work they do.

The SNCF has already offered a yearly 600 euro bonus, which strikers consider insufficient.

Laurent Berger, the secretary general of the CFDT, the largest trade union, said he does not support the ticket inspectors' strike, calling it “an unacceptable situation”.

"We must clearly save New Year’s weekend," he told BFM television.

And yet, the CFDT as well as the CGT and SUD-Rail unions all kept in place strike notices, which protect the ticket inspectors and makes their action legal.

Travel chaos

According to the SNCF website, only two out of three TGVs will be running over the Christmas weekend.

Main routes such as Paris to Rennes, or Paris to Bordeaux have been cut short, and half of services to Spain and a third to Italy have been cut.

This has sent some 200,000 travellers scrambling to find alternatives on busses, car shares, flights. Some have cancelled plans altogether.

Striking over Christmas is “incomprehensible and unjustified” Transport Minister Clément Beaune told France Info radio. Though he said requisitioning ticket inspectors – as was done with striking oil workers in October - is out of the question and illegal.

The SNCF has promised to make re-bookings free of charge, including for more expensive seats, and has offered vouchers worth twice the original ticket price to anyone whose train has been cancelled, even those who manage to exchange their tickets.

This means the strike will cost the company – and therefore the state – tens of millions of euros, which Beaune said “we do not need at this time”.

(with wires)

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