No end in sight for French customs protest

Protest action by French customs officers continues to cause lengthy delays for Eurostar passengers heading to the UK and jams on the roads approaching Channel ports – and so far there is no end in sight.

27 March 2019

The customs officers have been protesting since the start of March, notably by applying a strict work-to-rule policy for passengers taking the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord. Passengers have reported delays of up to six hours before being able to board trains. Some trains have been cancelled.

Eurostar says it expects this to continue to the end of March and is strongly recommending people do not travel unless absolutely necessary. Also it is unable to offer its priority check-in service, it says. The firm is offering free ticket swaps for later dates and refunds.

A spokesman for the SNAD, the CGT union’s customs branch, said the approach of Brexit sparked the protests but that the demands are not strictly related to it. They are linked to pay and working conditions generally.

He said since 2002 salaries have not increased in line with inflation and that workers have lost purchasing power despite being given extra work to do since the terror attacks. Brexit is going to result in even more work, he added. Also cuts in the last few years have reduced their numbers from 24,000 to 17,000 which means they already struggle to do their jobs properly.

He said the protests at the Gare du Nord consist of applying strictly the current rules that they are supposed to follow, but are not usually able to follow due to lack of staff. They are not in fact applying the stricter checks that would be needed in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

The upshot is that they are checking one piece of luggage in six, as opposed to the usual one in 20. He said there is also protest action at the Channel ports and at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport.

The spokesman said they met with the head of the customs service yesterday but that he “didn’t want to offer us anything”. They will be making new proposals shortly and cannot say how long the action will go on.

“People are waiting two or three hours to get on board trains because Eurostar has not adapted the frequency of the trains to the work-to-rule policy,” the spokesman said.

He said the fact the work-to-rule causes such delays is due to the short-staffing which means they usually cannot follow rules to the letter. “Eurostar normally insists we go faster and we take one or two seconds to check a bag instead of taking five. If we take five, obviously it takes longer for the checks.”

He added: “If there aren’t enough of us then we also can’t do our work on counterfeits, drugs, safety, customs duties and manage everything properly.”

The spokesman said the customs service chiefs are telling them that Brexit will not cause problems, but they are unconvinced. “There will be problems, not least for holding trucks at Dunkerque and Calais; for passengers at the tunnel… And there will be issues at little airports like La Rochelle – all the provincial airports that fly to Britain.

“They will have extra things to do, notably customs duty formalities that they’ve not had to do for over 40 years. It changes everything.

“But the work will be done, our agents know their jobs.”​

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