• France's news in English
 

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

Published: 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
Paris Terror Attacks
Elysée guards 'sick of heavy and sweaty gear'
A guard stands outside the presidential palace. Photo: AFP

Elysée guards 'sick of heavy and sweaty gear'

Members of the nearly 200-strong contingent of presidential guards say heavy machine guns are leaving them in pain and sweaty bullet proof vests are resulting in spotty skin - basically making their working conditions "intolerable" in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, a report has claimed. READ  

French FM to attend Russian WWII ceremony
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Photo: AFP

French FM to attend Russian WWII ceremony

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he would go to Russia for Saturday's celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany which is being boycotted by most Western countries. READ  

UK economy leapfrogs France, new study claims
Ouch. France overtaken by the UK as the world's 5th economic power. Photo: Oli Bac/Flickr

UK economy leapfrogs France, new study claims

There was more bad news for France on the economic front on Wednesday as another study claimed that the British economy was currently in the process of overtaking the French as Europe’s second largest. READ  

Paris Terror Attacks
Charlie Hebdo handed 'courage' award in US
Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gerard Biard accepts the award in New York. Photo: AFP

Charlie Hebdo handed 'courage' award in US

The PEN American Center stood its ground on Tuesday and presented satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with an honorary award, even though their decision had already caused many writers to boycott the gala. READ  

Pedestrian Paris
Paris to drive cars off River Seine's right bank
The right bank of the River Seine could look like this in the future. Image: Luxigon

Paris to drive cars off River Seine's right bank

With the left bank of the River Seine safely in the hands of pedestrians, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo now wants to take away the right bank from the city’s cars. READ  

Alps Plane Crash
Alps crash co-pilot did 'trial run' of fatal dive
Did the co-pilot try out his fatal dive on the previous flight? Photo: Quentin/Flickr

Alps crash co-pilot did 'trial run' of fatal dive

The co-pilot who is believed to have deliberately crashed a Germanwings jet in the French Alps may have "rehearsed" steering the plane into a rapid descent on his previous flight, a French probe revealed on Wednesday. READ  

French MPs approve boosting spying powers
Lawmakers in the Assembly National are set set to OK a controversial spy bill. Photo: AFP

French MPs approve boosting spying powers

French MPs gave the green light to a new law on Tuesday that grants the state sweeping powers to spy on its citizens despite criticism from rights groups that the bill is vague and intrusive. READ  

Uproar as French mayor 'counts Muslim children'
Robert Ménard, mayor of Béziers in southern France. Photo: AFP

Uproar as French mayor 'counts Muslim children'

A French mayor backed by the far-right National Front was accused of racism on Tuesday after using the names of school children in his town to decide how many were Muslim. READ  

French female hacks slam lustful politicians
French journalist Tristane Banon who accused former French politician DSK of sexual assault. Photo: AFP

French female hacks slam lustful politicians

"Get your paws off me!" was the message from female French journalists to the country's lecherous male politicians on Tuesday when they published a petition denouncing sexism. READ  

Spying bill
Five dangers of France's new snooping laws
Protesters demonstrate in Paris against the government's controversial bill giving spies sweeping new surveillance powers. Photo: AFP

Five dangers of France's new snooping laws

French MPs are set to overwhelmingly give their backing to a bill that will grant intelligence services sweeping new surveillance powers in the name of fighting terrorism. Here are five reasons why opponents of the bill say we should all be concerned. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
France tells migrants in Calais to 'forget the UK and stay here'
Who's to blame? Trial after Frenchman dies downing 56 shots
Society
VIDEO: See what's beneath the surface of the French Riviera
National
French teen suicide after sex video web bullying
France launches bid to buy Europe's biggest and most spectacular dune
Business & Money
Why May 2015 is the best month in years to work in France
Features
What's on in France: Ten things to do in May
Five great outdoor bars in Paris to check out this summer
Double standards? French Muslim barred from class over long skirt
National
France goes on the defensive after UN experts say 'racism is trivialised'
Five reasons we should be worried about France's new snooping laws
International
The French don't seem to care about the UK election and that's normal
Culture
Only in France? Naked comedian stuns French culture minister
Migrant camps spring up in the heart of Paris
International
France bags another fighter jet deal but should Paris thank the US?
Society
French elevator protocol: Greeting, flirting and yes, even sex
Travel
Getting from CDG airport to Paris by road should now be a lot quicker
Politics
Why all the dodgy ties? A French view of the UK general election
France may produce the most wine, but who drinks the most?
National
Why do the French have such a sorry record for recycling?
7Up row could see French language enforced on all flights to Canada
Culture
Take a peek inside France's newest, but oldest tourist attraction
National
How to disguise the fact you are clearly not French
France desperately hunts for church terror plot accomplices
WARNING - When in France use first names with caution
Can France really protect 4,500 churches around the country?
So what does the world's oldest bubbly taste like?
British expats left in lurch by NHS clampdown
Tossing cigarette butts in Paris to prompt €68 fines
Culture
Cannes Film Festival reveals jury
Flamanville: France's nuclear 'calamity' that has the UK worried
Features
Forget the Mona Lisa, here are the weirdest objects you can see in Paris
For many Britons 'Waterloo' is just an Abba song or a train station
IN PICTURES: See the French ship 'Hermione' set sail again for the US
Opinion
Is it time the French scrapped tu and vous?
National
Marine Le Pen makes Time 'most influential' list
National
Sexual harassment rife on Paris trains
Cannes Film Festival line-up revealed
National
Cartoonist's book slams 'Islamophobia swindlers'
National
More French women than men lured by Isis
Society
Les Entrepreneurs: We chat with the founder of Paris Picnic
National
Edith Piaf celebrated at Parisian show
How the health reforms will change life in France
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

?>