Tue, Apr 03, 2018 - Page 7 News List

French trains to grind to halt as Macron pushes reform

AFP, PARIS

A digital road sign reads “Strike: Think carpool” on the A55 highway in Marseille, France, on Sunday, on the eve of the start of a French rail unions strike.

Photo: AFP

The state-run French National Railway Corp (SNCF) on Sunday warned of major disruption caused by strikes this week that analysts have said could be a major test of how much weight the country’s once fearsome trade unions still carry.

Train drivers and other staff were to walk off the job starting yesterday night, starting three months of planned stoppages against reform plans French President Emmanuel Macron and his government announced reform plans.

From today, waste collectors, some staff in the electricity and energy sector and employees of Air France are also to strike in the biggest wave of industrial unrest since Macron’s election in May last year. Flight crews and ground staff for Air France announced a further two-day strike for April 10 and 11.

The SNCF said that travel would be “very disrupted” on Tuesday, with only one in eight high-speed trains operating, about one in five regional trains running and major cancellations on commuter trains.

SNCF president Guillaume Pepy warned that some train lines might be closed due to the walkouts and that problems might accumulate over time because stoppages have been announced for two out of every five days until June 28.

Unions are reacting to government plans to revamp the debt-laden and loss-making SNCF, which they believe — despite consistent denials from the government — is a first step toward privatization.

Under the proposed changes, new rail employees would not benefit from the special status historically given to railway workers, which guarantees them a job for life and early retirement.

Forty-eight percent of staff are to join the strike today and tomorrow, including 77 percent of drivers, the SNCF said.

The government has so far had public opinion on its side over the rail reform, but a survey on Sunday showed sympathy growing for SNCF staff.

A new poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion, a research firm, showed that 46 percent of respondents found the strike “justified,” up four percentage points from two weeks earlier. Only a slim majority, 51 percent, thought that the government “should complete the reform as it has been announced.”

Unions have so far failed to block any of the changes proposed by Macron since his election last year, a victory that virtually swept away the French Socialist Party, long the political champion of the labor movement.

Like with controversial labor market reforms in October last year, Macron has promised to push through the SNCF overhaul by executive order to avoid a lengthy debate in parliament, while also pressing ahead in other areas.

“His tactical approach is working. By constantly opening new fronts, he renders opposition to the previous one obsolete,” political expert Philippe Braud said.

With French opinion divided between “resignation” and “deep conviction that things must move forward … the planets were aligned,” Braud said. “So many reforms have been aborted over the past 20 years.”

France’s union landscape has also shifted markedly, with the hardline General Confederation of Labor recently dethroned as the biggest player by the more moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labor, which has refused calls for a “convergence” of the various protests.

Union membership has also plummeted, with about 11 percent of French workers unionized, one of the lowest levels in the EU, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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