France prepares for union battle amid radical rail reforms

SNCF labour group threatens month-long strike as French PM pushes for change

The head of the hardline neo-communist union most strongly represented in the French railway company SNCF threatened a month-long strike on Monday night, just hours after prime minister Édouard Philippe launched the reform of the company.

"It will probably take a month-long strike to make the government fold," Laurent Brun, secretary general of the CGT-Cheminots, tweeted. "We will meet the challenge. We're certainly heading into one of the most important social movements in the history of the SNCF."

A similar reform plan in 1995, by then prime minister Alain Juppé, sent two million people into the streets and paralysed the country.

France has changed since, officials in president Emmanuel Macron's administration argue. Resolve among railway workers has weakened, and the public are weary of delayed and cancelled trains.

Mr Macron used the same method of consultation, which was followed by a rapid enactment of decrees, to reform the labour code last year. To widespread surprise, it met only minor protests.

On February 23rd, four unions representing the SNCF’s 160,000 workers warned the government “it will carry full responsibility for a major conflict” if it reforms by decree.

The conservative daily Le Figaro denounced the SNCF as a 'self-preserving bastion that refuses that one touch a single hair of this sacred cow'

Mr Philippe on Monday confirmed he will not hesitate to issue decrees. Further details on reforms will be presented just two weeks from now, in draft legislation and a separate report by the SNCF to the minister for transport. This administrative ambush will precede by one week a mass protest planned by the unions.

The same unions are to meet on Tuesday night to decide whether to go on strike.

‘Ideological confrontation’

The prime minister warned against "twisting the railway reform into an ideological confrontation". But it is that already. The conservative daily Le Figaro denounced the SNCF as a "self-preserving bastion that refuses that one touch a single hair of this sacred cow".

Mr Philippe emphasised that "it is the president of the Republic who set the course". The left-leaning newspapers Le Monde and Libération compared the speed and zeal of Mr Macron's reforms to that of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The reforms announced by Mr Philippe are based on a report by Jean-Cyril Spinetta, the former chief executive of Air France, which was published on February 15th.

The Spinetta report was “severe, but unfortunately correct”, Mr Philippe said. “The situation is alarming, not to say untenable. The French . . . pay more and more for a public service that functions less and less well.”

For 40 years, France invested heavily in high-speed TGV lines, to the detriment of the ordinary train network. French infrastructure is twice as old as that in Germany, forcing French trains to reduce their speed by 20 per cent, for safety.

The SNCF receives €14 billion in annual subsidies, more than the police and gendarmerie combined, Mr Philippe said. “It costs 30 per cent more to operate a train in France than in another country.”

The railway’s €50 billion debt “threatens to swallow up the entire system”, Mr Philippe continued. “The status quo is not an option, because the status quo threatens public service.”

Line closures

But the government will not follow the recommendation of the Spinetta report to close local lines. “One doesn’t decide to close 9,000km of lines from Paris, according to administrative and accounting criteria,” Mr Philippe explained.

Along with reform by decree, the most hotly contested measure is the end of special status for railway workers. The 140,000 workers who have life-long contracts with the company will not be affected. “But the world is changing. The SNCF must change too,” Mr Philippe said.

In the face of competition, the SNCF could not grant life-long guarantees to new recruits. “They will benefit from the same working conditions as all French people under the labour code,” Mr Philippe said.

Mr Philippe did not spell out that the competition he alluded to is the result of EU regulations which require France to open its railway sector to competition before December 25th. “Wherever our neighbours have opened up to competition, it has increased usage and improved service,” he said. “Competition means new actors, new ideas, new means.”

Mr Philippe said the three wings of the SNCF will be brought together under centralised oversight. “Between the broken-up British model and the continental model of a single, integrated group, as exists in Germany, my preference goes towards the latter.”