French Rail Workers Press on With Strike After Lawmakers Pass Reform

April 18, 2018 Updated: April 18, 2018

Striking French rail workers disrupted train services for the seventh day this month on Wednesday, spurning government calls to end the industrial action over reforms at the state-owned SNCF railway company.

The rolling strikes, due to stretch on until the end of June, entered a new, more testing phase for unions a day after parliament’s lower house approved the railway reform bill they are fighting.

“Unions are free to do as they see fit … but a majority of French people want this reform,” Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud told public television channel France 2. “There comes a time when you need to bring an end to the strikes.”

All four major unions are contesting a reform which is the biggest since nationalization of the railways in 1937 and seen as a test of President Emmanuel Macron’s determination to pursue a far broader raft of economic and social reforms during a term that runs to 2022.

SNCF management said around one in three high-speed TGV trains were running and that services were cut to two in five trains on regional connections, while international services were down to about 75 percent of normal.

That is a marginally lower disruption rate than seen at the outset of the strike action on April 3 but not to a degree that suggested Tuesday’s resounding pro-reform vote in the National Assembly had broken the will of the unions and rail workers.

The Communist-rooted CGT union sought to raise the pressure on President Emmanuel Macron with a call for stoppages too at the Paris subway transport company, RATP, which is not targeted by the national railway reforms.

A CGT leader in the power sector warned in an interview in Le Parisien newspaper that his union could also tamper with power supplies and cause more train delays out of solidarity with rail workers.

Hallmarks of the reform include gradual phase-out of the SNCF’s passenger rail monopoly, starting with competition on high-speed lines in 2020, and an end to hiring of SNCF staff on more protective job-for-life contracts than in other sectors.

A third major strut of the reform will change the corporate structure of the SNCF group into a joint-stock company. The government insists it will remain 100 percent state-owned but unions fear this opens the door to privatization, as happened after similar changes to the corporate structure of France Telecom, now called Orange.

Another vote on the bill that enshrines the reform is scheduled in the Senate, the upper house of parliament, in May before the process of parliamentary approval is completed, which should now happen by early July at the latest.