Getting to and moving around France could prove to be a bit of a problem once again. Last November, train drivers brought the country to a virtual standstill for just over a week as they came out on strike against government plans to reform pensions.
This week though it has been the turn of taxi drivers and the national airline, Air France, to turn the daily commute for many into a not too magical, misery mystery tour.
On Wednesday thousands of cab drivers blocked major arteries in many cities across France in protest over a government-commissioned report proposing to deregulate the granting of licences.
The biggest demonstration was in Paris, where there is a particular problem with not just the number but also the availability of taxis at certain times of the day. The situation is especially critical during the early morning rush hour – as anyone who has tried to hail a taxi can readily testify.
It’s at exactly that time that most cabs are headed out to one of the capital’s two airports, Orly or Roissy. But from 10 o’clock onwards many drivers are back at the ranks, sitting around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for business.
At the moment there are just 16,000 licensed taxis in Paris and its suburbs, far fewer than there were way back in 1920 when there were 25,000.
The report’s proposals currently under consideration are to liberalise the market by allowing anyone who registers with the local authorities to be granted a licence to carry passengers. Such a move would increase the number in circulation in Paris and its environs to around 50,000. In effect it would introduce a system of minicabs, which at the moment doesn’t exist.
But the taxi federation maintains the changes would in fact guarantee that many drivers, already struggling to make a living, would simply go bust.
Average earnings are around €7,60 an hour according to the president of the federation, Alain Estival, and cabbies are forced to work between 50 and 60 hours a week to secure a reasonable take-home pay and cover the costs of having acquired a licence in the first place - €200,000.
If the number of taxis were increased to the extent planned – it would simply mean a lot of qualified drivers would no longer be able to make a living.
The report also includes a suggestion that the Mayor of Paris buy back those licences already granted, thereby creating a truly level playing field. But that would cost a small fortune and the money just isn’t available, not even if the state were to chip in.
The government has promised that any eventual reforms, including the idea of a lane reserved solely for taxis on the motorways leading from Paris to the two airports, are just at the proposal stage at the moment. Any changes would only happen after a period of consultation with the taxi drivers’ federation. Ominously though, another day of blockades is threatened for next week.
And equally portentous perhaps was the way newspapers announced the strike at Air France on Thursday as being the company’s first of the year. By implication more can be expected.
Unions called for action to put pressure on the management ahead of a planned round of salary negotiations due to start next week.
They’re calling for pay rises bigger than the 2.3 per cent increase currently on the table and another look at the way cabin crew are remunerated for unsociable working hours.
Air France took some preventative measures in advance of the strike by cancelling 10 per cent of flights out of Orly – the airport deals mainly with domestic traffic – and booking passengers on to alternative flights. Its European and long haul routes from Roissy were unaffected.
But staff at the airline have a reputation for striking when it’s guaranteed to cause the maximum disruption. And unless management can bring something else to the negotiating table, the upcoming school holidays at the end of February, could prove to be yet another travelling nightmare for those trying to take to the skies.
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