It’s time for a showdown in France. President Emmanuel Macron vs the railway unions. The latter have come out on strike in protest at Macron’s move to reform the SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français, or the national railway company to you and me). This is part of a broader package of reforms at liberalising the French economy, a tricky task that previous Presidents have tried and failed. In 1995, then conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe ran into trouble when his rail reforms had to be withdrawn after crippling strikes led by the CGT rail union, forcing his resignation.
Important aspects of the reform include an end to the hiring of SNCF staff on contracts that are more protected than other public sectors, and the introduction of competition on high-speed rail lines from 2020. Alterations to the corporate structure of SNCF are also included in an effort to tackle SNCF’s 45 billion euro debt, but the unions are worried that this could open the door to future privatisation. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe insisted that SNCF would remain publicly-owned, emphasising that it is an integral part of France’s heritage.
The move is opposed by all four of the major trade unions, and is seen as a testing ground for even bigger battles to come. If the President gets his way, the path to a much deeper and broader reform of the French state becomes much more obvious. Thousands have marched in opposition across the country in support of les cheminots, arguing that maintaining and operating the famed French rail system (which includes high-speed TGV) is a job that requires working unsociable hours and keeps the country moving in an efficient manner. Rolling strikes have seen cancellations across the country and are due to last until the end of June. Trains to and from other countries such Belgium and the United Kingdom are also affected.
In response, Macron has urged the rail unions to “stop holding the country hostage”, and denounced those opponents of the bill as “people who decide to be against everything”. He has a reforming zeal, and he is very insistent with the press and public that he was given a mandate last year by the French people to radically change both government and society. It is clear that the cocksure Macron is ready to take on the large and sacred public sector along with their trade unions in order to make his major changes, for better of worse.
Public opinion is always a key political battleground, and pollster Ifop found that 61% of the public supported Macron’s rail reforms – a change from previous rail confrontations where the public has generally taken the side of the strikers, and perhaps a sign that the French public are onboard with Macron’s mandate to change the country. Despite some disregarding his Presidential victory last year as the result of facing a hated far-right candidate, the polling on policies like this give credence to the argument that the two-thirds of the votes he gained against Marine Le Pen were more than a settling for the lesser of two evils.
Last week the National Assembly resoundingly approved the bill by 454 to 80. The process now moves onto the Senate, and it is hoped that the bill will be approved by early July.