France's SNCF to cancel 9 out of 10 high-speed trains during massive Thursday strike

As France prepares for a massive strike on Thursday against a planned pension reform, French rail company SNCF announced on Tuesday that only one high-speed train out of 10 will run across the country. Other services such as the Parisian metro will also be "disrupted". 

The SNCF rail operator expects 90 percent of regional trains, as well as those on suburban lines in the Paris region to be cancelled.

International services will also be "severely disrupted", it announced.

Sixteen Eurostar trains linking Paris to London on Thursday have already been cancelled.

The move could last several days, as many unions have already called on an "unlimited strike".

These disruptions could be greater than the last big rail strike on spring 2018, when SNCF employees marched against the French government's reform aimed at making the company more competitive.

"The social discontent now is stronger than it was in 1995," according to Bernard Thibault, a former CGT leader during the protests 24 years ago.

The Paris metro is bracing for gridlock as 11 of the city's 16 lines shut down completely Thursday, with only the two fully automated lines running as normal.

According to the French Civil Aviation Authority, the strike will also cause disruptions on domestic flights: 20 percent of domestic flights are expected to be cancelled.

British airline EasyJet announced on Wednesday the cancellation of 233 flights scheduled for Thursday, part of its domestic and medium-haul flights, due to the French strikes.

"Two hundred and thirty-three flights have been cancelled, 70 of which affect the United Kingdom," the airline said in a written statement to AFP. EasyJet said it also expected "other flights to be delayed" adding it had advised customers to monitor for updates on the status of their flights.

Controversial retirement reforms

Union leaders have vowed to maintain their strike until French President Emmanuel Macron abandons his campaign promise for a "universal" retirement system.

Macron's retirement reforms would do away with 42 "special regimes" for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to lawyers and Paris Opera employees, which often grant workers higher pensions or early retirement.

But unions say the changes would effectively require millions of private-sector workers to work beyond the legal retirement age of 62 if they want to receive the full pension they have been promised.

"The flagrant provocation is trying to say this reform would affect only the special schemes," Philippe Martinez of the hard-line CGT union said last week.

"It's a shameful lie," he continued. "Everyone understands that it's a reform that will affect the public as well as the private sector."

'Quite harmful' 

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has acknowledged French workers will gradually work longer but no concrete details of the overhaul are to be announced before mid-December.

And while 76 percent of respondents in an Ifop poll published on Sunday back the reform, 64 percent do not trust the government to pull it off.

Police unions, rubbish collectors, air-traffic controllers and Air France workers have also said they will start striking on Thursday, and the biggest union for primary school teachers expects four out of 10 schools will remain shut.

Rallies and work stoppages are planned in dozens of cities, capped by two demonstrations planned for Paris that will converge on the Place de la Nation.

Officials have already ordered Paris businesses along the routes to close on Thursday, underscoring retailers' fears that a long strike will take a heavy toll on their businesses.

"It's a period of heavy spending," François Asselin, president of the CPME association of small and midsize businesses, told France Info radio on Tuesday.

"We estimate that a day of general strikes takes away some 400 million euros ($440 million) of revenues for the country, including nearly 200 million euros for the Paris region," he said.

And if the strike persists, he warned, "it can frankly be quite harmful, especially with Christmas coming up".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)