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

TGV high speed trains stand stationery on tracks outside the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, on the second day of three months of rolling rail strikes by the staff of French public railways service SNCF.
AFP

Paris (AFP) – 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 wide-ranging 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.

Disruptions were so far less severe than the first two days of the strike last week, though the SNCF warned of more cancellations possible on Monday for the network’s 4.5 million daily passengers.

So far, just one in five high-speed TGV trains were running, as well as one in five regional trains, while one in three were operating in the Paris region.

About 20 percent of Eurostar trains under the Channel Tunnel were expected to be cancelled both Sunday and Monday.

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.

– Battle for public opinion –

Two days of talks between the government and union officials last week failed to point to any deal, with Laurent Brun of the CGT’s rail branch saying Friday that the strike could extend beyond June 28.

“We’re going to have a marathon if the government forces it,” he said. 

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 for improving the SNCF’s flexibility and cutting costs.

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, who 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.

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