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.
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