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Could striking French rail workers bring France to a standstill once again?

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Could striking French rail workers bring France to a standstill once again?
Photo: AFP
11:57 CET+01:00
French rail workers have threatened all out war against the government over planned reforms of the country's rail system, but can they really paralyse the country like they did back in 1995?

In 1995 France was hit by the biggest social movement since 1968 as rail workers staged weeks of industrial action that crippled the country's train network.

Their action, part of a greater social movement against then Prime Minister Alain Juppé's planned retirement and welfare reforms is still remembered by many in France who were affected by the chaos that saw Paris hit by traffic gridlock and free boats provided to ferry people along the Seine to help them get home.

The main grievances for the railway workers back in 1995 were the loss of the right to retire at 55 and an SNCF restructuring plan which was to eliminate thousands of jobs.

Some 23 years later and French rail workers are once again up in arms and promising all out war against the government over its planned reforms to the rail sector and its state operator SNCF.

"We are surely on our way to one of the biggest union actions in the SNCF's history," Laurent Brun, head of the CGT Cheminots union said last month adding that he was ready to lead a month of strikes.

Chief among their gripes is the plan to end the special employment status of SNCF rail workers, known as cheminots, that allows them a job for life, automatic pay rises and early retirement. although only new recruits will be affected.

The cheminots insist they deserve these perks due to having to work weekends and holidays and claim most rail workers earn under the average wage.

They area also angry that French president Emmanuel Macron plans to pass the reforms by decree which would allow him to bypass parliament.

A strike has already been called for March 22nd - to coincide with a civil servants walk out - and Paris transport workers announced this week that they would be joining their colleagues out of solidarity.

However unions were due to announced the extent of  their planned industrial action on Thursday. There are reports they may opt for a rolling strike over Easter.

But are they really about to bring the country to a standstill like they did in 1995 and once again force the government to shelve the reforms?

The French public don't believe so with 64 percent sceptical the unions can bring about a "total blockage" of the country.

'Government wary of causing too much anger'

While there is clearly anger among unions the government has been careful not to push their luck too far. For example while a report advised the government to close hundreds of kilometres of regional train lines around the country, the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe refused to back what clearly would have been an unpopular move in the eyes of the public.

The government has also declined to cut the perk of free tickets which rail workers and their family benefit from, another move which would have been extremely unpopular given that many cheminots chose to live far from their place of work knowing their transport costs were zero.

The perk of free and discounted tickets for workers and family members is believed to cost the state €25 million a year. SNCF managers are the ones who take most advantage of it and the government knows it needs them onside to pass the reform.

'Divided unions and declining power'

The French president and his prime minister will also be confident of avoided transport paralysis knowing that unions in France don't hold the same sway as they did back in 1995.

They are also divided. A rivalry has grown between the CGT and SUDRail, arguably the two most radical unions as they fight to gain influence over SNCF workers.

Other unions like the CFDT are more reformist and less militant which makes it hard for rail workers to nurture a unified response against the government.

The same divisions were seen in the reaction to Macron's labour reforms last year which passed into law after failing to provoke the huge street protests that unions had promised.

Government has public support

Another factor that stands in favour of the government is that it appears to have the support of the public. In a recent poll some 69 percent agreed that the special employment status of rail workers needs to be reformed.

Another poll revealed that for 58 percent of the public any strikes by rail workers over the planned reforms were "not justified".

And even 49 percent thought Macron's use of decrees rather than asking MPs in parliament to back the reforms was justified. 

But back in 1995 public support for strikers was high as the movement was seen as a defence of the entire public sector.

"In 1995 all the French were cheminots," an unnamed advisor to the French prime minister told BFM TV, which was effectively the reason the then PM Juppé ditched his reforms.

Since then however some argue the view of the French public towards the rail sector has been damaged due to the frequent transport delays and disruptions they have had to suffer. While those problems are caused by under investment rather than the rail workers it means the public will be far less sympathetic to rolling strikes than they were in 1995.

Only time will tell if the public support remains in favour of the government and what impact repeated strikes will have.

Macron however has vowed not to stop reforming France.

"It will not stop tomorrow, nor next month, nor within three months," the president said.

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