French rail strike resumes as government warns it won’t back down

0
4880

The train station in Perpignan stands largely deserted on April 8, 2018 during a strike by workers of the French rail company SNCF. / AFP PHOTO / RAYMOND ROIG

French rail workers launched their latest two-day strike on Sunday over plans to overhaul the heavily indebted train operator SNCF, the biggest test yet to President Emmanuel Macron’s drive to reform the country’s economy.

Neither side appears ready to back down, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warning that the government would not be deterred despite union pledges for three months of rolling stoppages, and possibly more.

“I get messages from people who support the government, saying we need to carry this through all the way. And that’s what we are going to do,” Philippe told the Parisien newspaper Sunday.

Just one in five high-speed TGV trains were operating and similar disruptions were expected Monday, when roughly one-quarter of Eurostar and Thalys trains, serving London and Brussels, will be cancelled, the SNCF said.

On some main lines just one in six trains will be running Monday, and only one in three regional trains, including the heavily used lines serving the Paris region.

Public opinion appears to be swinging toward the government, with an Ifop poll published Sunday by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper — carried out April 5-6, just after last week’s strike — showing 62 percent in favour of the SNCF reform.

It was an increase of 11 percentage points from Ifop’s survey on March 30-31, in which just 51 percent supported the reform.

“I understand the determination of certain unions, but they need to understand mine as well,” Philippe said.

Macron, who has barely spoken about the conflict in public so far, is scheduled to give an hour-long TV interview on Thursday.

– Battle for public opinion –
Rail unions show no signs of giving up, setting up a showdown that could spell weeks of headaches for the network’s 4.5 million daily passengers.

“We’re going to have a marathon if the government forces it,” Laurent Brun of the CGT’s rail branch said Friday after two days of talks with government officials, while warning that the strike could extend beyond its scheduled end on June 28.

Unions also claim broad public support, with a fund set up to compensate striking workers’ lost wages garnering over 460,000 euros from nearly 14,000 donors as of Sunday.

At stake is the government’s plan to deny a guaranteed job for life and early pensions to new hires, which it says is necessary to improve the SNCF’s flexibility and cost cutting.

The company has some 47 billion euros in legacy debt, part of which the government may absorb as part of the overhaul, ahead of opening up European passenger rail traffic to competition starting from 2020.

Workers also fear that if rivals take over lines previously operated by the SNCF, they will lose their job security and other benefits.

“Everyone can understand that in a company that’s losing money, workers’ futures can’t be guaranteed,” Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot wrote in the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday.

But rail unions are hoping to take advantage of a growing atmosphere of social discontent against Macron’s reforms, including protests and strikes by civil servants, energy workers and garbage collectors.

Employees at Air France, in which the government holds a minority stake, also went on strike again Saturday seeking a six percent pay raise, and students have been blocking several public universities over Macron’s plan to introduce more selective applications.

– ‘Resentments running high’ –
Many analysts say the chances of any “convergence of struggles” appear remote, given the lack of a common goal among the various groups, but don’t rule it out completely.

“Resentments today are running high, and these social movements can take on a life of their own that unions can’t always control,” said Jean-Marie Pernot, a labour specialist at the Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES).

The strikes, which come as a series of two-week school vacations begin across France, have thousands of people scrambling to make alternative plans.

“For me, it’s possible, because I live alone,” said Francoise, 60, who avoided Sunday’s strike by taking a train from Bordeaux to Paris a day earlier.

“But it’s much more complicated for people with jobs that aren’t that flexible, or who have children,” she said.

Other travellers are trying to work from home or turning to carpooling sites, which have been flooded with requests.

BlaBlaCar, the market leader for shared rides in France, said demand for spaces in its members’ cars surged tenfold on strike days last week.