Thursday 5 December 2019 4:21 pm

Transport to Europe crippled as French national strikes take hold

Travellers trying to get the Eurostar to the continent have been thwarted today, after 78 trains linking London to Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands were cancelled amid ongoing strikes in France.

Most affected routes are for trains from St Pancras to Paris, with the cancellations taking place between 5-8 December.

Read more: Eurostar warns customers not to travel due to French custom worker strikes

An estimated 50,000 international rail passengers have had to make other arrangements.

It comes as a French national strike also forced airlines such as Easyjet, British Airways and Ryanair to cancel flights to European cities.

Travel workers were joined by teachers and emergency room medics in launching one of the biggest public sector strikes in France for decades on Thursday, determined to force President Emmanuel Macron to abandon plans to overhaul France’s generous pension system.

Transport networks in Paris ground to a near halt as unions dug in for a protest that threatens to paralyze France for days and poses the severest challenge to Macron’s reform agenda since the “yellow vest” protests erupted.

Riot police in Nantes, western France, fired tear gas at masked protesters who hurled projectiles at them. Lyon and Marseille, thousands more protesters carried banners that read “Macron get lost” and “Don’t touch our pensions”.

“What we’ve got to do is shut the economy down,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union, told Reuters. “People are spoiling for a fight.”

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Commuters in Paris dusted off bicycles, turned to carpooling apps or worked from home to avoid the crush on the limited train and metro services that operated in the morning rush hour.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

Read more: Amazon and GMB dispute protest numbers at UK warehouses

For the former investment banker, the showdown with strikers will set the tone for the second half of his mandate, with more difficult reforms to come, including to unemployment benefits.

Nor is it without risk for the hard-left unions whose membership and influence have diminished in recent years. They face a delicate balancing act of needing to pressure the executive while not creating a public backlash.