Paris commuter chaos as metro workers strike over pension reform

Paris commuter chaos as metro workers strike over pension reform

Commuters wait to board a metro at the Gare du Nord subway station during a strike by all unions of
Commuters wait to board a metro at the Gare du Nord subway station during a strike by all unions of the Paris transport network (RATP) against pension reform plans in Paris, France, September 13, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

PARIS: Parisian commuters faced travel misery on Friday (Sep 13) as metro workers went on strike over plans to reduce their retirement privileges under President Emmanuel Macron's pension reforms.

Ten of the city's 16 metro lines were shut completely, while service on most others was "extremely disrupted", Paris transport network ​​​​​​​(RATP) transit operator said.

Massive crowds waited on the platforms of the few lines still working, and officials counted about 200km of traffic backups during the morning rush hour, double normal levels.

The city's burgeoning cycle lane system was seeing a surge in traffic as people pulled out bikes to get to work.

People ride bicycles past a traffic jam on the banks of the Seine in Paris during metro strike
People ride bicycles past a traffic jam on the banks of the Seine in Paris on September 13, 2019, during a one-day strike of Paris public transports operator RATP employees over French government's plan to overhaul the country's retirement system. (Photo: AFP/Martin BUREAU)

Two of the three main suburban lines traversing the city were also severely disrupted, as were most bus and tram services.

Die Sokhanadu, 25, was stuck at a station on line 12, trying to get to his job working on the restoration of the Notre-Dame cathedral in the heart of the city.

"If the metro doesn't start running, I'm going to have to head home," he told AFP.

Others worried about their evening commutes, with the RATP warning that only lines one and 14 - the only two which function autonomously, without drivers - would be operating after 8.00pm (1800 GMT).

The RATP warned Thursday that commuters should try to find travel alternatives and said it was financing free 30-minute rides on the Cityscoot network of electric mopeds.

US ride-hailing giant Uber is also hoping to seize the moment with two free 15-minute rides offered on the Jump electric bikes and scooters it has deployed in Paris.

At the Gare Saint-Lazare in central Paris, commuters swarmed off trains operated by the state-run SNCF before stopping in their tracks to consult bus routes on the cell phones.

A closed entrance at the Republique metro station is seen during a strike by all unions of the Pari
A closed entrance at the Republique metro station is seen during a strike by all unions of the Paris transport network (RATP) against pension reform plans in Paris, France, Sep 13, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

Long queues backed up at bus stops as traffic was snarled at busy intersections. At the Gare du Nord train station, Europe's busiest, commuters suffered crowded platforms and long waits on the few metro lines running a reduced service.

"I am walking to work today and will be on the streets for at least four hours," Anthony, 21, who works in a restaurant in West Paris, told Reuters on his way to start a shift running nearly to midnight.

Unions want the strike, expected to be the largest since 2007 in Paris, to send a warning to Macron's government as it launches one of the most perilous reforms of his presidency - to merge France's 42 different pension systems into a single points-based system.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe promised on Thursday to take the time to listen to unions and broader public opinion after criticism in the past for turning a deaf ear.

"The prime minister's announcements will not have any impact. The strike has been launched and participation will be massive," Frederic Ruiz, who heads the CFE-CGC union at the Paris public transport company, RATP, told Reuters.

Commuters wait to board a metro at the Gare du Nord subway station during a strike by all unions of
Commuters wait to board a metro at the Gare du Nord subway station during a strike by all unions of the Paris transport network (RATP) against pension reform plans in Paris, France, Sep 13, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

'TREADING CAREFULLY'

The government did not waver in the face of rolling strikes last year over a reform of the state rail company, but Macron has since been weakened politically by anti-government protests at the end of 2018 and early this year.

Those protests, which shocked the nation with some of the worst street violence in decades, were triggered by anger over falling living standards and also concerns Macron was pushing his reform agenda too hard.

"When you start messing with the pension system, it's better to tread carefully," Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin told Europe 1 radio.

While promising to be open to external input on the pension reform, Philippe said that he was determined to see through the pension reform plan.

"The country's got to change. It's a global world now and we can't work in France like we used to," said commuter Etienne Leblanc, a sales director in the finance sector.

The pension regime specific to RATP workers allows train drivers and other staff that work underground to retire at 52, a decade earlier than the normal legal retirement age for a full public pension.

Junior budget minister Olivier Dussopt said that RATP workers' pension contributions covered only 40per cent of payouts, leaving the state on the hook for the rest.

"If the state stopped paying, the system would explode," he added.

CGT Union members gather inside Paris public transports operator headquarters
CGT Union members gather inside Paris public transports operator headquarters La Maison de la RATP in Paris on Sep 13, 2019 during a one-day strike of RATP employees over French government's plan to overhaul the country's retirement system. (Photo: AFP/STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN)

Previous reforms have already rolled back some of RATP workers rights and increased how long they have to pay into the system, but workers are worried they will have to make further sacrifices.

An Odoxa-Dentsu poll found that nearly three out of four people surveyed did not think that Macron's government would come up with a good reform.

Source: Reuters/AFP/nr

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