French rail unions threaten to up strike stakes after ‘useless’ talks

French rail workers have threatened to intensify their rolling strikes after a "painful" six-hour meeting with the government. Meanwhile opinion polls suggest the majority of the French do not support the strikers.

French rail unions threaten to up strike stakes after 'useless' talks
Photo: AFP

These were the first talks between the French rail workers unions and the government since the beginning of three-months of rolling strikes on Monday evening that are fast becoming the greatest challenge to President Emmanuel Macron since his election last May.

The strikes are set to resume on Sunday for another two days of industrial action and will continue until June (see calendar below) unless a compromise can be reached.

But following the six-hour meeting unions were furious.

The CGT's Laurent Brun said the talks were “painful and useless”.

“It was a real masquerade,” said Brun. “The government doesn’t have anything to offer and is not solving any problems.”

The unions deplore what they see as the government’s hardening stance and have threatened to up the ante and intensify the strikes.

“The government is storming on ahead to try and asphyxiate us. We are in a situation where the strikes may intensify,” said Roger Dillenseger from the Unsa trade union.

Sud Rail said the strikes would have to “get stronger, bigger and harder” for the government give in.

“This conflict will last a long time if the government doesn’t change the way it does things,” said Didier Aubert from the CFDT union.

Rail workers and users will have to keep up the action “if we want the government, which is showing no signs of wanting to change direction, to give in,” said the UNSA union.

At the centre of the discussions was the SNCF’s colossal €54.5 billion debt. 

The government said it was open to the possibility of paying back some of the debt, but not unless something is given something up in return. “I don’t want to make any commitments at this stage when nothing has changed with the way the SNCF works,” the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Thursday after the consultation.

Among another of the strikers’ main concerns 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.

French people seem to think reforms are necessary and are wary of the strikes.

According to a recent Odoxa poll, a majority of French people (57%) think the strike is ‘unjustified’ and 59% fear the industrial action will turn into a similar situation as in 1995, when a rail workers strike brought France to a standstill.

Another BVA poll showed that 74% of French people are favourable to a reform of the way the SNCF is run and is organised and 62% believe a reform of the rail workers status is necessary, according to a BVA poll.

The government and the unions will meet for another round table this afternoon, to discuss government plans to open up the railways to competition and the rail workers social rights.  This comes ahead of two days of strikes from Sunday to Tuesday morning.

by Emilie King



French rail strikes: How Friday’s walkout is set to affect you

French rail workers are gearing up for another day of strikes on Friday July 6th. Here's what you need to know about how train services will be affected.

French rail strikes: How Friday's walkout is set to affect you
Photo: AFP
Travellers in France are set to be hit by more travel headaches on Friday as two rail unions, CGT and Sud-Rail, go on strike on one of the busiest days for people heading off on their summer holidays. 
Here's what we know about the disruption to services:
Four TGV and TER trains out of five will be operating on Friday while there will be two Intercités trains out of three and three Transilien trains out of four, on average, according to France's national rail company SNCF. 
International trains will run “as normal” on Eurostar, Thalys and the France-Spain link while services will be “almost normal” on the France-Germany route. 

French rail strikes latest: First weekend of holidays to be hitPhoto: AFP

For those travelling on the Lyria service there will be one train out of two, while two out of three trains are scheduled on the France-Italy service. 
More than 600 TGV trains will run on Friday and Saturday, with nearly 100 percent of trains guaranteed for tourists travelling from the French capital to popular tourist destinations such as Marseille, Nice, Montpellier, Perpignan, Bordeaux and Rennes, said SNCF.
All passengers who had made a reservation were contacted in recent days “by SMS or email”, according to the rail company, which added that “tickets remain refundable and exchangeable without additional cost”.
Sud-Rail union announced last week, after a national council meeting, that it was calling on its members to walk off the job on July 6 and 7, the first weekend of the school summer holidays.
President Emmanuel Macron has pushed through the emblematic shake-up of train services despite stiff resistance from rail workers and their unions, who have carried out their longest strike in three decades in an attempt to derail the plan.
The rail reform was a key victory in the centrist president's push to reform wide swathes of France's economy.
Unions have been resisting plans to end life-long job security to new recruits, as well as plans to turn the SNCF into a joint-stock company, which hey saw as a first step toward privatisation despite government denials.
Macron argued that the SNCF, saddled by debts of some 47 billion euros, needs to cut costs and improve flexibility before the EU passenger rail market is opened up to competition.