The pledge to retain the “public character” of the SNCF was intended to combat fears among trade unions about privatisations, but there remain several other major points of friction.
One of them is the manner in which the government plans to force through changes: via presidential decrees that reduce the time for a public and parliamentary debate and the ability for lawmakers to amend the draft law.
Most significantly, Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said the overhaul would mean new recruits would not benefit from the special status given to all railways workers which offers job guarantees and extra pension rights.
“The aim is clear,” Borne said after the outlines of new law, set out over four pages, were presented to the cabinet. “It's for a better public rail service at a better cost for users and taxpayers.”
The CGT and three other unions have already called for a nationwide strike on March 22, and will meet Thursday to decide on additional rolling strikes aimed at derailing the measures.
“The government wants to force this through without listening to the trade unions,” a spokesman for the SUD Rail union, Erik Meyer, told AFP on Wednesday, adding that members would be called to take part in a “rolling and hard strike in the face of a hard and inflexible government”.
They are to meet again on Thursday to discuss what further action they intend to take.
Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, accused the government of wanting “to pick a fight” on Tuesday after he presented a rival plan for improving the SNCF's services and finances to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
The reform of the SNCF is the latest in a series of tricky and politically sensitive reforms being undertaken by the new government of centrist president Emmanuel Macron, who was elected last May.
Last year, he forced through controversial changes to labour law which were contested by some trade unions. But the labour movement was divided overall and street protests were small by French standards.
The latest policy proposals, including changes to the civil service and the education system, have sparked a new tussle and test of strength between Macron and France's once fearsome labour organisations.
The prospect of major strikes from March 22 on the railways and in other public services has led to speculation in the French media about whether the country is set to face disruption comparable to the paralysing wave of walkouts in 1995.
“Rail strikes have often been long,” labour historian Michel Pigenet told AFP on Wednesday. “If the strike lasts, on one hand it causes frustration among users but on the other hand it is the opportunity for a debate, and at that point arguments can be made.”
A poll by the Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting group published on March 1 showed that 58 percent of French people thought a strike would be “unjustified” and 72 percent agreed with taking away railway workers' special status.
But 64 percent of respondents feared that the country was going to be “totally blocked” as in December 1995.
The government says it must move quickly to get the heavily indebted SNCF back on sound financial footing before passenger rail traffic across Europe is opened to competition starting next year.
The behemoth has a debt load of nearly 47 billion euros ($58 billion) and a huge pension burden — for decades drivers could retire in their early 50s — meaning operating French trains is 30 percent more expensive than elsewhere in Europe, the government claims.
It wants to introduce more flexibility in working conditions and contracts while pledging to invest 3.6 billion euros in infrastructure over the next 10 years.
The overhaul would also turn the SNCF into a publicly listed company, though the state would own 100 percent of the shares.
The French railways will soon have foreign competition on its tracks, such as Germany's Deutsche Bahn, under EU directives that must be implemented in the next few years.
Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne told French daily Les Echos on Wednesday that rival operators could start running on France's vaunted high-speed TGV lines under an “open access” system starting in December 2020.