Tourists pay the price of Paris strikes

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The Independent Online
WHAT TO do in Paris? The tourist is spoilt for choice: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Musee d'Orsay. Sadly, for the past three weeks, strikes have closed all but the Eiffel Tower.

How to get around Paris? The Metro and bus system is excellent: cheap and frequent, with a dense network of lines and services. But, in three of theplast seven days, the system has been halted by a strike for all or part of the day.

The transport strike was called after a Metro security officer was "attacked" by illegal jewellery vendors and died. Within hours, the police announced that the man had died of natural causes. He was not even pushed, and was known to be sick. The unions and, mysteriously, the management of the Paris transport company, the RATP, insisted on sticking with the original version. The strikes went ahead, disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Parisians and tourists.

The museum strike, meanwhile, was supported by only about 15 per cent of employees, yet management and govern-ment did not challenge the picket lines set up outside almost every nationally run museum in Paris and several in the provinces.

As a result, the Louvre - the highlight of many visits to the French capital - has been closed for almost three weeks; so has the Musee d'Orsay, home of the state collection of Impressionist paintings; so have the peaceful gardens of the Musee Rodin.

"Some tourists are becoming aggressive," Daniel Le Bavant, president of the hotel owners' federation in the greater Paris area, said. "They want their money back and say they'll never come to Paris again."

Hotels and tour operators have looked for alternatives, with little success. There is a 25 per cent increase in visits to the military museum at Les Invalides, but most visitors feel that a distant view of Napoleon's tomb cannot compare with a first glimpse of the Mona Lisa.

The Louvre has turned away about 320,000 visitors in the past 20 days, losing pounds 800,000 and raising the prospect that several exhibitions scheduled for later this year will be cancelled. Shopkeepers in the Carrousel, the museum's underground shopping centre, are protesting against the protesters. One banner said: "10,000 tourists, 49 shops, 400 employees of the Carrousel and 60,000,000 French people: taken hostage by 80 strikers."

A kind of settlement was announced yesterday, and the museums should reopen today. But unions are adamant that the action is merely suspended until the end of this month, and will be resumed if the government reneges on its promises. A particular bone of con- tention is whether staff will be paid for their days on strike.

Tourists cannot relax yet.