Some 200,000 train ticket holders have seen their service cancelled
Some 200,000 train ticket holders have seen their service cancelled AFP News

Some 200,000 holidaymakers in France scrambled Wednesday to book alternative travel for their Christmas holidays as the national rail operator announced major service cancellations due to a strike.

The SNCF has now cut more than a third of scheduled trains for the looming Christmas weekend when millions of French people are expected to travel for family gatherings.

The worst affected services were high-speed TGV lines, the mainstay of long-distance rail travel in France, leading to a rush for flights, rental cars and car-pooling.

"I understand their demands but do they have to go on strike during the festivities?" Isabelle Barrier, whose train to southwestern Toulouse was cancelled, told AFP in Paris.

"They couldn't give a damn about people! If they want to strike, I understand, but not the Christmas weekend!" said Emilio Quintana, a father struggling to find a ticket to Marseille, told AFP.

SNCF's travel division boss Christophe Fanichet apologised to travellers on Wednesday and called the strike action by ticket inspectors -- launched without union backing -- "scandalous" and "unacceptable".

"You don't strike at Christmas," agreed government spokesman Olivier Veran.

Faced with high inflation, ticket inspectors are demanding a further pay hike beyond the 12 percent increase already negotiated which will take effect over two years, according to the SNCF.

Annual inflation is running at around 6.0 percent in France, lower than most other European countries which are also facing public sector strikes.

Neighbouring Britain has been hit by a wave of stoppages from rail workers, as well as nurses, passport control workers and ambulance drivers.

According to the SNCF website earlier, half or more of scheduled trains for the weekend had been cancelled on key routes such as Paris to Rennes, western France, or Paris to Bordeaux, in the southwest.

Half the services to Spain have been slashed, and a third of those to Italy.

The rail operator promised re-bookings free of charge, including for more expensive seats, but most TGVs were already fully booked on Wednesday.

It also offered to give out vouchers worth twice the original ticket price to people whose trains have been cancelled. This applies to those who manage to exchange their tickets.

But travellers queueing at railway stations said that was not much of a consolation for a ruined holiday.

Mathilde, a 38-year-old Parisian whose train to Bordeaux was cancelled, said she was tempted to get on another train even without a ticket.

"I might try to force my way onto a train, although I'm not sure that will work," she said, adding: "I don't expect the SNCF to be very understanding."