French rail workers begin months of strikes in test for Macron

French rail workers begin months of strikes in test for Macron

PARIS - Agence France-Presse
French rail workers begin months of strikes in test for Macron

French rail workers kicked off three months of rolling strikes on April 3, part of a wave of industrial action that will test President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to reshape France with sweeping reforms.rench rail workers kicked off three months of rolling strikes on April 3, part of a wave of industrial action that will test President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to reshape France with sweeping reforms.

The strike caused major disruption for France’s 4.5 million daily train passengers and stoppages have been announced two days out of five until June 28 -- unless Macron drops his bid to force a major overhaul at state rail operator SNCF.

“We have been asking for the same thing for several weeks -- that the government completely reconsiders its plan,” Philippe Martinez, head of one of France’s biggest unions, the CGT, told France Inter radio.Staffs at Air France, garbage collectors and some energy workers are also staging separate walkouts on April 3 in a growing atmosphere of social strife 11 months after 40-year-old Macron came to power.

Only one in eight high-speed trains were running on what the French media dubbed “black Tuesday,” with more than three quarters of train drivers on strike, according to SNCF management.

Only a fifth of regional trains were running -- and as commuters took to the roads instead, the streets of Paris were snarled with 370 kilometers (230 miles) of jams in the morning, “exceptional for the time of day,” according to traffic website Sytadin.Some commuters took precautions on the first of two days of strikes this week.

Farid Hachelef, a 32-year-old who works in construction, said he had spent the night in Paris with a friend rather than trying to travel in from the northern suburb of Argenteuil, “otherwise, I would never make it.”

In the southern city of Lyon, lawyer Perrine Fontana said the rolling strikes were going to cause “huge problems” for her because she frequently travels for work.“I can understand the railroad workers to a certain degree, but their strike challenges the personal and professional lives of many people,” the 27-year-old said.At the busy Gare du Lyon station in Paris, the platforms were so crammed that a woman fell onto the tracks and had to be helped out by fellow passengers.

Three-quarters of Eurostar trains to London and Brussels will run Monday and Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands will operate almost normally, but there will be none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland.At Air France, where staff is striking for the fifth time to demand a pay rise, managers said 75 percent of flights would operate.

Further walkouts are planned for April 7, 10 and 11. Macron says the SNCF, saddled with 46.6 billion euros ($57.5 billion) of debt, needs to make major changes as EU countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.It is 30 percent more expensive to run a train in France than elsewhere in Europe, according to his government, which wants to strip new SNCF hires of special rail workers’ status guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement.

“We need to rid this country of its strike culture,” Gabriel Attal, spokesman for Macron’s Republic On The Move (LREM) party, said on April 2.

Unions accuse Macron, a centrist ex-investment banker, of seeking to “destroy the public railways through pure ideological dogmatism."

They fear that plans to turn the SNCF into a state-owned company could eventually lead to the rail operator being privatized -- something the government denies.

As for the SNCF’s massive debts, Martinez blamed decisions by previous governments to “prioritize high-speed lines at exorbitant costs”, while urging fresh guarantees that the operator will never be privatized.

“We are for a national rail company. That depends on the government -- we are ready to discuss it,” he said.

Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said the government’s willingness “to listen, to hold a consultation, to have a dialogue” was unchanged, stressing she is meeting with unions on April 5.

The rail strikes are being seen as the biggest challenge yet to Macron’s sweeping plans to liberalize the French economy and make it more competitive.

He managed to pass controversial labor reforms in October, but the length and severity of the rail strikes are already earning comparisons with late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s showdown with coal miners in 1984.

The industrial action is a major test, too, of how much influence France’s once fearsome unions -- whose membership has plunged to just 11 percent -- still carry.

Pensioners, students and public sector workers have also taken to the streets in recent weeks protesting against far-reaching reforms by Macron, who insists he was elected on a mandate for change.

France, SNCF, Strike, Netherlands