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Parisians dodge strikes by logging on to share rides, bikes

Adrien Lachevre and Nailat Msoili live a few kilometers (miles) apart in Paris' northwest suburbs, but their paths had never crossed until Lachevre picked Msoili up in his gray Fiat on Tuesday morning.

An app had matched their schedules and morning commutes, and the two had arranged to meet at a nearly deserted gas station well before dawn, hoping to beat the traffic that has clogged highways in recent days.

As a general strike across France stretched into its sixth day, they were among many commuters who have turned to technology — and strangers — to get by.

Parisians ride bicycles Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 in Paris. Only about a fifth of French trains ran normally Tuesday, frustrating tourists finding empty train stations, and most Paris subways were at a halt. French airport workers, teachers and others joined nationwide strikes Tuesday as unions cranked up pressure on the government to scrap changes to the national retirement system. (AP PhotoFrancois Mori)

Use of carpool apps, big and small, has spiked. So has demand for shared bikes and electric scooters that you activate with your phone and pick up and drop off where you want. Commuters are finding places to sleep near their workplaces via Facebook or online couch-surfing communities.

All this is changing the nature of French strikes, undercutting unions’ power to paralyze the country.

Only about a fifth of French trains ran normally on Tuesday, and many Paris subway lines remained closed as transit workers and other unions protested President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed overhaul of the country's pension system. Teachers, health care workers and bus drivers were among those taking to the streets.

A man rides a scooter on a bridge of Paris, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. The Eiffel Tower shut down Thursday, France's vaunted high-speed trains stood still and teachers walked off the job as unions launched nationwide strikes and protests over the government's plan to overhaul the retirement system. (AP PhotoRafael Yaghobzadeh)

Carpooling startups are among the big winners.

Msoili, a receptionist in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, usually takes a train and a bus to work each morning. For the first two days of the walkout, she stayed at a friend’s house close to her job.

When the strike outlasted the weekend, she took a colleague’s recommendation and signed up for BlaBlaLines, a city ride-sharing service set up by popular French long-distance carpooling company BlaBlaCar.

Bicycles riders are reflected in the water in Paris, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. French strikes are disrupting weekend travel around the country, as truckers blocked highways and most trains remained at a standstill because of worker anger at President Emmanuel Macron's policies as a mass movement against the government's plan to redesign the national retirement system entered a third day. (AP PhotoFrancois Mori)

BlaBlaLines drivers, unlike those with Uber, aren't trying to make a living from giving rides to others; they're ordinary car owners who were already planning to drive somewhere and agree to take others along. The Paris regional transport authority subsidizes BlaBlaLines to encourage carpooling, so passengers ride free.

Lachevre, who also typically takes public transportation to work, downloaded the app when the strike began. He has picked up commuters on his way to and from work ever since.

“Why not help other people out?” he said. “I still have two, three, four places in my car that could permit other people to go to work without complications.”

Commuters wait next to empty platforms at Gare du Nord Station, in Paris, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. Only about a fifth of French trains ran normally Tuesday, frustrating tourists finding empty train stations, and most Paris subways were at a halt. French airport workers, teachers and others joined nationwide strikes Tuesday as unions cranked up pressure on the government to scrap changes to the national retirement system. (AP PhotoFrancois Mori)

Inching forward on a congested highway, Msoili and Lachevre exchanged views on the strike and the proposed retirement plan.

The overhaul, which the government will unveil Wednesday, aims to unify France’s 42 pension plans into one. Macron sees it as essential to his quest to transform the French economy. Unions fear it will force people to work longer for smaller pensions, though the government says it won't raise the retirement age of 62.

Msoili sympathizes with the transportation workers. But she has begun to take issue with the strikers’ tactics.

A woman pulls her bicycle by a closed subway station Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 in Paris. Frustrated travelers are meeting transportation chaos around France for a second day, as unions dig in for what they hope is a protracted strike against government plans to redesign the national retirement system. (AP PhotoRafael Yaghobzadeh)

”It’s people like us who are struggling as a result,” she said.

Lachevre, whose cousin is a train conductor, said he understands the transport unions’ position but thinks the proposed reforms will make the system fairer.

In the meantime, BlaBlaCar has seen rides on its long-distance carpooling service double or triple since the strike began, particularly along popular train routes such as Paris to Lyon, CEO Nicolas Brusson said. BlaBlaLines usage in the Paris region has increased tenfold.

A man rides his electric scooter on a bridge of Lille, northern France, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. The Eiffel Tower shut down Thursday, France's vaunted high-speed trains stood still and teachers walked off the job as unions launched nationwide strikes and protests over the government's plan to overhaul the retirement system. (AP PhotoMichel Spingler)

Carpooling cooperative Mobicoop is appealing to French citizens’ sense of solidarity, encouraging drivers to offer rides to people headed to demonstrations in Paris. Drivers decide whether to charge a fee, and the platform makes no commission. The service saw a 178 percent increase in rides on the first day of the strike, according to spokeswoman Marion Deton.

Vélib, which runs the city’s shared bike program, saw record-breaking usage over the weekend, when some 80,000 users took close to 240,000 rides on the green and blue bikes.

Apps like these are helping to prevent the kind of near-total paralysis seen during a 1995 strike, which was also over pension reforms. That walkout forced then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé to drop the proposal, and his government then collapsed.

A passenger walks with his bicycle on empty platform of a RER suburb subway, in Paris, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019 on the fourth day of nationwide strikes that disrupted weekend travel around France. (AP PhotoFrancois Mori)

“Now it’s much simpler in the case of a strike to find other solutions, whether that’s carpooling or Velib or scooters,” Lachevre said.

The carpooling craze is all but certain to ease up when the strike is over. Still, Brusson, the BlaBlaCar CEO, said past strikes have produced lasting growth for companies like his.

“You go down from the strike, but you never go back to where you started," he said.

A man rides his bicycle in front of the closed Eiffel Tower in Paris, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. The Eiffel Tower shut down Thursday, France's vaunted high-speed trains stood still and teachers walked off the job as unions launched nationwide strikes and protests over the government's plan to overhaul the retirement system. (AP PhotoFrancois Mori)

Lachevre and Msoili, at least, said they’ll keep the app.