Saturday, June 21, 2014

How to have fun during a French train strike

There is a train strike on at the moment in France
writes Stephen Clarke
– but it has, perversely, become an excellent time to travel by train. As long as you don’t have to be at your destination at a certain fixed time, and don’t mind taking the risk that you won’t get a seat (unlikely on all except the really busy routes), now is a great time to take a TGV – one of France’s excellent fast trains. Most of them are running more or less on time, and there are lots of railway workers in red waistcoats at the stations telling you exactly when the next train is leaving. You can also look on the internet, which has reliable lists of non-cancelled trains. I have had to travel around quite a bit over the past few days and have had nothing but good experiences.

 … I’ve taken advantage of this situation recently by ignoring my reservations and travelling when I want. Once I even turned up a whole day early. It’s been very liberating.

… This hasn’t been the case for everyone. There have been the usual news reports about commuters losing income, waiting for hours on platforms, being forced to imitate sardines, and the like.

 … The strike, which has only been supported by a small minority of railway workers, is about reform, as most strikes in France are. The government is being forced by Europe to open up the railways to competition, and is therefore planning to split the French SNCF into three companies. Divide and rule, the unions say. They also don’t want to lose their very French privileges, which include retirement at age 52 for what they call the “personnel roulant” (those who actually work on the trains), with a lifelong pension of 75% of their salary. Enough to buy a decent train set. This has been sweetened even more by an offer from the government to give two years’ salary to anyone who accepts early retirement. They’re among the world’s most privileged industrial workers, which is why they’re on strike – they want to stay that way. Logical, really.

 … One of the places I travelled to by train this week was Waterloo. Not the station in London, the battlefield in Belgium. I went there to see what was happening on the 199th anniversary of the battle, on 18 June. The answer: nothing except massive renovation and building work in preparation for next year. By June 2015, the buildings on the battlefield will never have looked better since the day before Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher started firing cannons at them.

The official film on show at the Lion mound museum is very French, as are most of the displays. Fans of Napoleon seem to have recaptured the whole area now that Wellington has left. The film tells the story of the battle and concludes along the lines that although Napoleon lost (a big admission), at least during the years of his reign, he managed to spread French revolutionary ideas across Europe. It’s a very French interpretation, which made me think that in a way, you have to be grateful to Wellington and Blücher for stopping Napoleon in 1815. Otherwise right now we might have train strikes across the whole continent …