After almost crippling the Rugby World Cup final last month, the French railway unions are set to hijack the inauguration of Eurostar's faster rail service from London to Paris next week.
The unions have called a strike on the eve of the big event, raising the prospect of a Parisian nightmare for passengers on the first journey from St Pancras: they risk being stranded without transport on the other side of the Channel.
On Tuesday the Queen will open the international terminal at St Pancras, a formerly run-down station that has been converted into the hub of a ?6 billion venture - complete with what is billed as "Europe's largest champagne bar" - to link London to Europe's high speed network.
The first trains will begin running a week later on November 14. Eurostar's guests for the maiden journey to Paris at 11.01am will include a delegation from Friends of the Earth to highlight the company's claim that going by train to the City of Light is greener than going by plane.
In either category, however, visitors might wish to reconsider their plans as French workers prepare to express their anger over President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to reform an outdated pensions system.
A previous strike on October 18 caused chaos for thousands of England rugby fans trying to get to the final against South Africa. There were few buses or trains and the taxi queue at the station stretched so far that one bewildered traveller was heard asking: "Can we not buy a car?"
Eurostar, which had to cancel some of its trains during that strike, put on a brave face.
"We expect to run all services normally on November 14," said a spokesman, who nevertheless acknowledged that "for passengers with onward travel plans things could be a bit complicated because I don't expect there will be any local trains".
Making matters worse was the description of the strike beginning on November 13 as "indefinite", meaning it could rumble on for several days, discouraging passengers from booking or boarding trains to Paris just when Eurostar, which has been struggling for years to turn a profit, had hoped for a boost from the faster service.
The new line has been built by London and Continental Railways between the Channel tunnel and St Pancras. It was one of the biggest and most costly public works projects in Europe because of the difficulties involved in bringing it into the heart of London.
It will allow trains to reach full speed in Britain - until now this was possible only on the other side of the Channel - and will shave 20 minutes off the old route from Waterloo. Passengers will get to Paris in just 2hr 15min and to Brussels in 1hr 51min.
Eurostar, which already claims about two-thirds of the transport market from Paris and Brussels to London, has calculated that the faster journeys will attract an extra 2m passengers a year by 2010, raising the total to 10m.
The time gained may be lost, however, if passengers find themselves having to walk or cycle from the Gare du Nord to meetings in paralysed Paris.
The threat of strike-related chaos is a huge embarrassment for Sarkozy. His plans to modernise France through his sweeping reforms are facing their first real test in what is being billed as his "black November".
Besides the railwaymen, energy workers are also threatening to strike on November 14. Provincial clerks and construction workers are preparing to stop work as well for better pay and retirement conditions.
Civil servants will go on strike the week after that over plans to streamline the bloated French bureaucracy: under the government's plan, one in three retiring civil servants will not be replaced.
The student union, which forced the previous government to back down over a youth employment contract last year, has called on its members to march in support of the bureaucrats. In a reflection of how much the zeitgeist has changed since the strikes of May 1968, a majority of students these days crave nothing more exciting than the ironclad security of a nine-to-five job as a fonctionnaire.
Sarkozy, 52, who met union militants last week, has warned that "street blackmail will not work". He has some room for manoeuvre: one difference from the protests that ended a previous government effort to reform pensions in 1995 is public backing for the combative "Sarko" and his plan. This scheme would scrap the special privileges that allow some workers - train drivers among others - to retire on a full pension as early as 50.
Even so, it is argued that Sarkozy, who won power on a platform of "rupture" with the past, has little stomach for the sort of battle that Margaret Thatcher fought with the unions in her drive to overhaul the British economy in the 1980s. "French people have the feeling that things have to change but they don't want shock therapy," said David Thesmar, a professor at the HEC business school near Paris. "Sarkozy won't endanger everything for the sake of this reform and will compromise if necessary."
It may be some time, nevertheless, before French train drivers get over their indignation at being asked to work beyond the age of 50. Which means that the next few weeks are likely to go down in history as Sarkozy's winter of discontent. ( Times )