image

France

French rail strikes have cost €100 million, operator says, as staff continue to protest government reforms

Unions are protesting a plan that would do away with the jobs-for-life and early retirement guarantees enjoyed by current rail employees

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 10:40pm

France’s rail operator said on Monday that the rolling strikes against plans to overhaul the debt-laden company had already cost it around 100 million (US$123 million) as the stand-off between unions and the government drags on.

Train drivers and other staff at the state-owned SNCF have vowed to continue walking off the job two days out of every five until at least June 28 unless the government backs down on its reforms.

The stoppages so far are costing around 20 million per strike day and the disruption often spills into non-strike days, SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy told BFM television on Monday, the fourth day of the walkout.

“From what I can see, France has not been paralysed but clients are being heavily penalised,” Pepy said.

Nobody wants a long, difficult conflict but for now, we’re up against a wall
Philippe Martinez, trade union leader

Both sides are claiming broad public support. An Ifop poll published on Sunday showed 62 per cent in favour of the government’s reforms, compared with a slim majority of 51 per cent in the same survey a week earlier.

Yet unions point to the nearly 530,000 in donations raised as of Monday morning via a web-based fund for compensating strikers’ lost wages.

“Nobody wants a long, difficult conflict but for now, we’re up against a wall,” Philippe Martinez of the CGT union, the largest at the SNCF, told Europe 1 radio. “The government has forced us to take this type of action.”

President Emmanuel Macron, who has barely spoken publicly on the stand-off, is set to give an hour-long televised interview on Thursday, nearly a year after sweeping away France’s traditional parties with his election victory.

The 40-year-old centrist, who is pushing reforms to swathes of the French economy, will also appear for a two-hour prime time interview on Sunday night, facing journalists from BFM and the hard-hitting investigative news site Mediapart.

Parliament is expected to begin debating the SNCF overhaul on Monday, though Macron has said he will implement the changes by decree – another bone of contention for unions.

The government says it needs to move quickly ahead of the opening of French passenger rail traffic to competition starting in 2020, part of an EU-wide opening of state rail markets.

When our goods train clients see that the service isn’t reliable … they start using the roads, and it’s very difficult to get them to come back
Guillaume Pepy, SNCF chief

Unions are protesting a plan that would do away with the jobs-for-life and early retirement guarantees enjoyed by current rail employees.

The SNCF would also be transformed into a private company whose shares are owned by the state – which unions see as a first step toward privatisation, despite government denials.

The stand-off promises weeks of headaches for the network’s 4.5 million daily passengers.

Just one in five high-speed TGV trains were running on Monday, compared with one in seven or eight during last week’s strikes, and about 20 per cent of the Eurostar trains in and out of London have been cancelled.

Pepy noted “quite heavy participation” for the strike on Monday, “though there are more trains than last time”.

He also warned of lasting consequences for the SNCF if the strike extends into the summer.

“When our goods train clients see that the service isn’t reliable … they start using the roads, and it’s very difficult to get them to come back,” Pepy said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned on Sunday that the government would not be deterred from the main elements of its reforms.

“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.