French pupils sitting the first day of their final school exams Monday had the extra pressure of a crippling train strike, now in its sixth day and set to extend into Tuesday.
Monday is the beginning of the “baccalauréat” exams for 17- and 18-year-old students, the most important event in the school calendar. The results are hugely important and have a profound effect on their future academic and employment careers.
Despite the importance of the exams, rail workers’ unions said on Monday that “mobilisation remained strong” (about one fifth of workers) and that the strike would continue, at least until Tuesday.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Monday called the strike “useless and irresponsible, especially in the first day of the bac [baccalauréat]”.
Monday is the sixth day of the industrial action that has seen an average of half the high-speed TGV trains cancelled, while regional and other intercity services have been seriously disrupted.
Special trains for pupils
French state rail operator, the SNCF, was also “mobilising” thousands of workers on Monday to help make sure pupils got to their exams on time.
Special trains and buses were put in place on lines serving schools and baccalaureate test centres. The first exam, which is always Philosophy and is taken by every school leaver, began at 8am Paris time (GMT+2).
Workers in train stations across the country handed out tens of thousands of special stickers to students headed to their exams, so that they could be quickly identified and given priority over commuters and other passengers.
The government, meanwhile, made a special provision allowing candidates an extra hour on their exams if they arrived late because of the strike.
SNCF’s soaring debt
The ongoing strike has also hit international rail links, with services to Italy and Spain particularly affected.
Eurostar trains connecting Paris and London, and the Thalys service from Paris to Brussels, Amsterdam and Germany, are running as scheduled.
The industrial action takes place as the French parliament prepares to debate proposed reforms to tackle the soaring debts of the French rail network, which is a state monopoly.
Among the plans is to merge the SNCF and the RFF, which is responsible for the rail infrastructure, into one body, as it was before 1997. The reforms also set out how the SNCF will prepare for the advent of private competition, as required by EU treaties.
Unions say the reforms will do little to reduce the debt, currently at around 40 billion euros and set to rise to 80 billion euros by 2025.
‘The baccalaureate is sacred in France’
On Monday, Luc Chatel, a former education minister and current secretary general of the conservative opposition UMP party, called on the government to stop the debate while criticising rail unions for “taking France’s pupils hostage” in the ongoing industrial action.
“These reforms are badly set out…and don’t adequately prepare France’s rail network for competition in the future,” he told RTL radio.
“There is a crisis in this country that has filtered all the way down to messing up the most important exams for young French people,” he added. “The bac is sacred in France. It is a symbol of our national life that merits a spirit of national unity.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls insisted on Monday that the debate would go on, blasting the strike as “useless and irresponsible, especially in the first day of the bac”.
“Reforms are absolutely necessary,” he told France Inter radio. “The SNCF needs reform, the workers need the reforms, and the debate will go ahead as scheduled.”
Date created : 2014-06-16