French rail workers begin months of strikes against reforms

Rail and airline unions begin series of strikes that represent the strongest test yet for Macron's reform agenda.

    French railway company SNCF starts months of strikes against the government's reforms [Photo Matthieu Alexandre/AFP] [AFP]
    French railway company SNCF starts months of strikes against the government's reforms [Photo Matthieu Alexandre/AFP] [AFP]

    France is braced for more disruption as rail and airline unions are planning a series of strikes over the next months to protest against reforms of SNCF, the indebted state-owned rail company.

    The intermittent strikes are planned for two in every five days over the next three months, amounting to a total of 36 days of strikes. The first batch started on April 2 and will continue until Wednesday, April 4.

    The disruption represents the strongest test yet for President Emmanuel Macron's reform agenda.

    The French National Railway Company (SNCF) said in a statement on Sunday that only 15 percent of France's high-speed TGV trains and 25 percent of regional trains would run on April 3 and 4.

    As the SNCF had anticipated, traffic is already "very disturbed" on the first day of the long-term strike.

    SNCF management estimates that almost 50 percent of all rail workers and almost three out of four drivers are on strike and are not accounted for.

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    The strikes are imposed as a protest against the overhaul of the SNCF proposed by the French government.

    Macron's government wants to fundamentally reform the railway sector before the summer. The SNCF is plagued by an abysmal debt of $57.7bn, which also compromises any future investments.

    Privatisation

    The four labour unions representing railway workers oppose the rail reform project, which they say "aims to destroy the public railway service by pure ideological dogmatism".

    The bill, which was presented on March 14, aims to transform the legal status of the SNCF, which is currently a public industrial and commercial establishment.

    The government's plan would transform it into a public limited company, with tougher constraints on debt. It also wants to force the company to become more efficient.

    Another major change would be the termination of privileged employment status for new employees.

    In order to adopt the widely unpopular reform more quickly, the French government chose to bypass parliamentary debate, which is normally held for labour laws.

    This move corresponds to a deadline set by the European Union for France and other EU member states to liberalise their railway sectors and prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.

    The prospect of the arrival of competitors to the SNCF is at the heart of the company's reform.

    In February, Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, outlined plans to open up the rail monopoly to competition, as required by EU law.

    This does not mean that the SNCF must necessarily be privatised, but it must be placed on equal footing with private competitors, who must be allowed to offer their own rail transport services.

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    The government thus stopped short of privatisation, saying that the company was in "the heritage of the French and will stay there".

    It also will not close smaller, more expensive, regional lines.

    Privileged status

    Current SNCF personnel benefit from a special status. With the exception of professional misconduct, they are guaranteed employment for life, social security and a generous pension, as well as being exempt from paying fees for train services and discounted rates for some of the employees' family members.

    Becoming a railway worker is not easy. You must be under 30, pass aptitude tests and undergo a trial period that can last up to two and a half years.

    Working conditions are often very difficult; physically demanding work, night and weekend hours and travelling throughout France.

    In total, SNCF employs 146,000 railway workers, but the figure is steadily decreasing.

    Air travel services, garbage collection and energy sectors will also be affected by the strikes.

    Air France unions representing flight crews and ground staff also plan to strike on Tuesday and Saturday, with additional strikes on April 10 and 11.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


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