• France's news in English
 
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

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
French favour end of force-fed foie gras
Photo: Kevorks Djansezian/Getty Images/ AFP

French favour end of force-fed foie gras

Almost one out of every two French people now favour banning the force-feeding of geese and ducks to produce the national delicacy, foie gras, a survey showed. READ  

Journo sparks outcry with 'insular Muslim' jibe
Photo: Francois Guillot/AFP

Journo sparks outcry with 'insular Muslim' jibe

Prominent French journalist Eric Zemmour was back in the spotlight Saturday after being barred by a news channel for saying Muslims were elbowing French people out of the suburbs. READ  

Russia warns France over Mistral delay
Photo: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP

Russia warns France over Mistral delay

Russia will gladly take back the money it paid for French Mistral-class warships whose handover has been delayed by concerns over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis, a deputy defence minister said Saturday. READ  

French cardinal named as papal back up
Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP

French cardinal named as papal back up

Pope Francis on Saturday named French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran the new camerlengo, or chamberlain, charged with temporarily taking over the pontiff's duties if he resigns or dies. READ  

French police kill knife-wielding man
Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP

French police kill knife-wielding man

French police on Saturday shot dead a man who attacked them with a knife in a police station while shouting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great" in Arabic), a source said. READ  

French bus driver faked assault in paid leave ploy
The town hall in Goussainville. Photo: P.Poschadel/Wikimedia

French bus driver faked assault in paid leave ploy

A 23-year-old bus driver in suburban Paris was handed a six month suspended prison sentence Friday for staging his own assault in a ploy to obtain paid sick leave. READ  

French fishmonger nabbed in naked display
A French fishmonger (unrelated to the story). File photo: Pascal Pochard Casabianca/AFP

French fishmonger nabbed in naked display

A French fishmonger in women's lingerie was left with a lot of explaining to do after being arrested for exposing himself to holiday shoppers through his store window. READ  

EasyJet strike grounds France Xmas flights
Photo: Pascal Pavani/AFP

EasyJet strike grounds France Xmas flights

EasyJet flight attendants, angry over scheduling and pay, announced Friday a strike expected to force the low-cost carrier to cancel about half its flights in France the day after Christmas. READ  

French ex-airline boss: ‘Missing MH370 covered up’
Photo: Shutterstock

French ex-airline boss: ‘Missing MH370 covered up’

A former airline boss is making waves in France after he claimed that the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March had been covered up, and that the aircraft was likely hijacked by a hacker and possibly shot down by the US. READ  

French mayor wins battle to keep nativity scene
The mayor of Beziers, supported by the French far-right National Front party (FN), Robert Menard, looks at a nativity scene displayed at the Beziers city hall. Photo: Pascal Guyot

French mayor wins battle to keep nativity scene

As the annual Christmas battle over nativity scenes rages in France, it was a victory for the traditionalists in southern Montpellier on Friday as a court refused to order the removal of a town hall creche. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Santa bikers ride through Paris for orphans
Culture
Top 10 tackiest 'Made in France' gifts
Gallery
10 traditions that make a French Christmas
Culture
GALLERY: The French language's fixation with 'les Anglais'
Society
So what does the web tell us about the French in the year 2014
Society
Have the French fallen out of love with Christmas?
National
Immigration in France: Hollande hits back at the scaremongers
Culture
What's on: 10 things to do in France before Christmas
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
National
Muslims rule France in 2022: The bad boy of French literature is back
Gallery
There are so many things that claim to be French but aren't. Here are 12.
National
Crazy cat stories: Moggie returns after 1,200km trek across France
National
Tea sets for boys? French feminists protest 'gendered' Christmas presents
National
Jacques Chirac's 'head' - The perfect place to hide 1.5 kilos of weed
Gallery
Myths debunked: 11 things you (wrongly) presumed about France
National
Prices are tumbling but the property ladder is increasingly out of reach for the French
Education
IN IMAGES: French universities 'in ruin'. The students have the evidence
National
Life's about to get a lot cheaper for Paris commuters. Or is it?
Gallery
Ten dos and don'ts for partying with the French this Christmas
National
Some famous French fine wines are under threat from high speed trains
National
VIDEO: Homeless bodybuilder turns the streets of Paris into his gym
Business & Money
Noble Prize for Economics: Six things to know about Jean Tirole
Culture
Nobel Literature Prize: Ten things to know about Patrick Modiano
Gallery
Looking for a good Christmas market in France? Here's our top 10
Gallery
IN PICTURES: The top 15 new inventions to come out of France
Sponsored Article
Top ten gifts for an expat Christmas
Gallery
Miss France Farmer: The contest to find a 'real French beauty'
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Lyon's spectacular festival of lights dazzles once again
Gallery
IN IMAGES: Ten French Bond girls through the ages
National
Outrage forces French city to scrap yellow triangle ID cards for homeless
Gallery
Who does Christmas better - The French or Anglos? We decide.
National
All you need to know about the new French Bond girl Léa Seydoux
International
'My iPod's broken' - French jihadists moan about lack of home comforts
National
Race you to the top of the Eiffel Tower. No seriously, I'll race you.
National
And what if Mona Lisa was really a slave from China?
Opinion
Why company bosses in France have just about had enough
National
What impact did a 'giant butt plug' in Paris have on sales of sex toys?
Travel
National Geographic's top world destination for 2015 is in France.
Society
French babies switched at birth: Families seek €12 million damages
National
Why are so many French police officers taking their own lives?
Society
Immigration in France: Ten numbers that matter
Sponsored Article
Win a €250 voucher for your Christmas list
National
Sarko is back in the ring: Did he ever really leave it?
National
IN IMAGES: Yet more fatal floods hit the south of France
Gallery
Forget tourism and wine, here are 10 OTHER ways France leads the world
Sponsored Article
Live like a local - anywhere in the world
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
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