• France edition
 
French rail strike: What's all the fuss about?
Rail unions show no sign of ending their strike. But what exactly do they want? Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

French rail strike: What's all the fuss about?

Published: 16 Jun 2014 14:15 GMT+02:00
Updated: 16 Jun 2014 14:15 GMT+02:00

1. What is the reform that has prompted the strike?

Essentially the new law is designed to bring the two main bodies that are in charge of running the French rail system – SNCF and RFF, closer together. The two entities were created when the country's rail operator was split in 1997 at the behest of the EU, with SNCF given the job of running the trains and RFF in charge of the infrastructure. The reform, if it passes parliament, is set to become effective as of January 1st, 2015.

2. Why is it so important?

France’s rail system may be lauded abroad, but the reality inside the country is that not everything is running well on the ground and hasn’t been for some time. While the high speed TGV trains and long distance services may operate smoothly, the regional and commuter services are in desperate need of investment, says Jean-Claude Delarue the president of the rail user group SOS Usagers. “Every day trains are breaking down, meaning commuters are arriving late to the office,” he says. Last year's deadly train crash at Brétigny highlighted the need for much-needed investment in infrastructure.

It appears that since they came into being RFF and SNCF have not really enjoyed a good working relationship, in fact some say they hardly communicate at all, and that has caused problems. A recent, highly embarrassing incident saw SNCF order hundreds of new trains that ended up being too wide for stations after being given the wrong measurements by staff at RFF. The furious French government wants to avoid any repeat of such a mishap.

3. What does the reform hope to achieve?

In short "save the rail network" according to France's Transport Minister Frédéric Cuvillier.

To do that, the government aims to take SNCF and RFF and create three entities - SNCF mobilités, which will run the trains, SNCF Reseau, which will manage infrastructure and a new body called Epic which will be tasked with improving coordination and cooperation between the two other bodies.  Epic will be charged with streamlining spending and improving efficiency but its main objective is to reduce the crippling debt, which Cuvillier says will reach a mammoth €80 billion by 2025.

In terms of saving money, French daily Le Figaro estimated the reform could save €700 million, due to reduced IT and real estate costs and a further €500 million because of the unification of the business structure. The reform is also designed to prepare the ground for the deregulation of France's rail services, set to take place between 2019 and 2022. This too is an order from EU chiefs in Brussels.

SEE ALSO: 'We're pissed off' - French anger grows over strike

4. So if it's so important, why are the strikers opposed to this reform?

For the thousands of rail workers who have been on strike for the last six days the reform just does not go far enough. They say the changes, rather than bringing SNCF and RFF closer together, will actually create a “monster with three heads” which they fear will be a premise to the complete dismembering of the state-owned SNCF.

In an open letter to French President François Hollande, the CGT union said the reform "will create two companies, each with two boards of directors, separate contracts with the state... that does not ensure good quality railway transport."

The more radical CGT and Sud-Rail unions say the reform will also fail to solve the issue of the debt, which they claim is holding back the country’s once much-heralded rail system from urgently needed upgrades. Union chiefs say rail operators are handicapped by the need to pay interest on the debt and the reform will simply fail to remove this burden, nor does it provide a plan for the renovation of the network, they say. 

The real fear of the unions, however, is that the reform will lay the groundwork for the privatization of France’s rail network in the future. So although there are no jobs on the line right now, there will be in the future, unions say.

5. So what are they proposing instead?

It's important to note that not all unions are on strike. The two other big unions, UNSA and CFDT, are not entirely happy with the reform but they have called for dialogue to achieve the amendments they desire. But the more militant CGT and Sud-Rail unions want SNCF and RFF to be united together in a single entity for only then will the coordination problems that have plagued the service be resolved, they say.

They want a single governing board of directors and a single employee’s council that represents all workers on France’s rail system. When it comes to resolving the debt problem, the unions want the current €40 billion debt taken off RFF’s accounts and placed in a kind of new entity, which would house the debt in a separate legal structure.

6. Is it just about the rail reform?

It seems there may be more at stake for the two striking unions than just the reform. Jean-Claude Delarue notes that the CGT union – the largest and Sud-Rail, the third largest, are “highly competitive”. It appears they are flexing their muscles in a show of strength to other unions and want to appease those on the left of their own organisation. One specialist told French daily Le Parisien that the CGT, the country’s most powerful trade union, is in the process of radicalizing. The “hardened veterans” of the organisation are showing their hand, he said. It's notable that recent talks betweenthe SNCF and the unions did not focus on the reform itself but on issues such as "salaries, working hours and hiring". CGT and Sud-Rail may just be using the the reform as an excuse to push for better pay and conditions.

7. When will it all end?

Who knows. All the talks between the government and unions so far have failed to reach a resolution and the longer the dispute goes on the two sides seem to be unwilling to make concessations.

The two striking unions have proved stubborn so far and despite pressure from the government, they voted on Monday to extend the strike into a seventh day, to coincide with the presentation of the reform to parliament.

While the government is refusing to drop the reform, Socialist Party ministers have so far not been overly critical of the strikers. Their tone may change however, over the coming days. Importantly for the CGT is that although the level of participation in the action is decreasing, the disruption to commuters shows no sign of easing.

With the government insisting that strikers will not be paid for the days lost due to strike action, the workers may take the decision themselves to return to work. SNCF chiefs say it has already cost the economy €80 million.

Don't miss stories about France, join us on Facebook and Twitter

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France 'determined' to drive economic reforms
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls with President Francois Hollande. Photo: AFP

France 'determined' to drive economic reforms

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Friday said Paris was "absolutely determined" to drive economic reforms and that France was not "Europe's sick man". READ  

US: France can do more to fight Ebola
US Ambassador Samantha Power. Photo: AFP

US: France can do more to fight Ebola

Returning from a trip to inspect efforts to fight Ebola in West Africa, US Ambassador Samantha Power said France, Canada and Belgium could do more to help fellow French-speakers in Guinea. READ  

Presented by Home Exchange
Travel & live like a local with Home Exchange
Travel & live like a local with Home Exchange

Travel & live like a local with Home Exchange

Swap your home, save a fortune, and have a great time in the process. The Local finds why thousands of people from around the world have embraced the Home Exchange phenomenon. READ  

QUIZ: Find out how French you've become
So how French do you think you are? Photo: Frenchman: Shutterstock

QUIZ: Find out how French you've become

It's impossible to be an expat in France without turning a little bit French. Take our quiz and find out where you land on the Frenchiness scale. READ  

French try to make surly shopkeepers kinder
Tired of bad customer service in France? Photo: Smiling worker: Shutterstock

French try to make surly shopkeepers kinder

Many Anglos have a dim view of customer service in France, but the French aren't happy either with how some shopkeepers treat them. Now a growing programme is labeling shopkeepers who you can expect to be friendly. READ  

Broadcasts cut as fire ravages French radio HQ
A massive fire cut broadcasting for many of France's public radio stations. Photo: France Bleu

Broadcasts cut as fire ravages French radio HQ

A massive fire ripped through the Paris building that houses studios for some of France's public radio stations, prompted broadcasts to be abruptly cut off. It's unclear what sparked the blaze. READ  

Metro and Train strike set for Tuesday in France
A train and metro strike is set for Tuesday in France. Photo: AFP

Metro and Train strike set for Tuesday in France

Commuters should brace themselves for travel chaos next week, with a train and Metro strike set for Tuesday, according to AFP. But it's not clear yet how big of an industrial action it's going to be. READ  

France tries to collect €10k from fatherless girl
The teenager was told last week that she must pay back €10,000 in just 15 days. Euros: Shutterstock

France tries to collect €10k from fatherless girl

A 13-year-old girl in western France has been told she must pay back the €10,000 that was given to her by the state after her sailor father was killed in an accident. READ  

National Front pulls in 'record membership'
The National Front party has a total of 83,000 members – the highest number in the history of the party. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

National Front pulls in 'record membership'

After a year of unprecedented electoral success, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front party is attracting more members than ever before in the 42-year-old party’s history, French media has reported. READ  

Merah-inspired jihadists 'plot attacks in France'
Both men had been motivated by the actions of Mohamed Merah, a French-Algerian national killed by French police in March 2012 after murdering seven people. Photo: AFP

Merah-inspired jihadists 'plot attacks in France'

Morocco said on Thursday it has arrested two jihadists inspired by French terrorist Mohamed Merah who were planning to attack banks and multinational companies in France and in the North African country. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Travel and have a great time with Home Exchange
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles from British Airways
National
Eight Halloween events not to miss in Paris
National
10 things to never say to a French person
National
Top 10: When French translations go wrong
National
Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals
National
France falls to Germans in nude swim tourney
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Nowhere combines sex and art quite like France
National
Why you should never turn down an invitation to a French wedding
Sport
Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France. There are a few surprises
Gallery
Ten changes that would make learning French so much easier
Culture
IN PICTURES: 'Glass ship' Vuitton ready to set sail in Paris
International
How a giant 'sex toy' earned an American artist a slap in Paris
National
'Unlike in the US the French don't put the blame on the poor'
Gallery
Cover up and don't be too Latin: French travel warnings for the US
Society
Macholand: The online uprising against sexism in France
Gallery
In pictures: The daily life of the 2,000 migrants in Calais
Culture
Erotic promo video earns the Musée d'Orsay our "Only in France" award
International
'I love the UK, but I could die getting there': Struggles of Calais migrants
National
Seven reasons why everyone should work in a bar in France
National
The cost of expat home comforts: How France compares to Europe
International
Why don't Calais migrants stay in France? The Local went to find out
National
What are the pros and cons of working as an au pair in France?
Society
Is France's generous welfare state about to get a little stingier?
Gallery
Extraordinary images of ordinary life in the poor Paris suburbs
Gallery
10 things expats love and loathe about life in France
National
So why don't many women in France breastfeed?
National
'Stop bashing La Belle France' - French PM tells UK press
International
UK warns Brits of 'high threat' from terrorism' in France
National
VIDEO: 'The Kama Sutra is not a dirty little text'
National
What Rome could teach Paris and vice versa
Gallery
What do foreign countries warn their citizens about when visiting France?
Gallery
IN IMAGES: Eiffel Tower opens new glass floor above Paris
Society
Is it really better to grow old in the UK and the US rather than France?
Gallery
It's that time if the year again: French sportsmen reveal (almost) all
Gallery
So what do the French find really weird about Anglos?
Travel
Paris museums to open seven days a week but unions are not happy
Culture
Caption contest: What happened when Jay Z met Sark O?
International
This explains why the French never seem to get a sense of déjà vu?
National
VIDEO: Here's a view from the Eiffel Tower you haven't seen before
Travel
Do Paris's iconic rooftops deserve Unesco World Heritage status?
Opinion
'France cannot reform, the pilots' strike showed us this'
National
'We just don’t work hard enough in France.' Is that true?
International
France has moved to beef up security in various public places
National
Hiking naked in France does not come risk-free
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se