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French government offers to absorb ‘€35 billion of railway debt’ to end strike

The French government has agreed to absorb €35 billion in debt from the state railway SNCF, a top union official said Friday, as it seeks an end to nearly two months of strikes.

French government offers to absorb '€35 billion of railway debt' to end strike
Photo: AFP

Luc Berille, the head of the UNSA union, said that the state had proposed taking on 35 billion euros (41 billion dollars) of the SNCF's 46 billion euros of debt, starting with 25 billion as soon as 2020.

“The prime minister was specific,” Berille said after talks with premier Edouard Philippe, adding that the government would increase infrastructure investment by 200 million euros a year to reach an annual total of 3.8 billion euros.

“The issue is moving forward” and “there is now dialogue”, he added.

All trade unions representing staff on the SNCF have backed the longest ever strike sequence on the network which began in early April and has seen workers stop work on two out of every five days.

Absorbing the debt has been a key demand from unions, but it looked unlikely to to break the deadlock, with the hardline CGT union saying it would continue the strikes. 

Earlier this week, the results of a poll organised by unions showed that 95 percent of respondents rejected the government's proposed rail reforms, the CGT announced on Wednesday

'Major concerns'



Philippe is holding meetings with the main rail unions on Friday and plans to make a statement around midday, before meeting with SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy in the afternoon.

Roger Dillenseger, of the UNSA's rail branch, the second-largest union at the company behind the CGT, said it would consult members about whether to continue the stoppages.

But he said that for now the union remained mobilised against the overhaul because “the official plan is the one that will emerge from the Senate,” which is scheduled to vote on the rail reform law on June 5, Dillenseger said.

“We still have major concerns” but “the negotiations are paying off,” he said.

President Emmanuel Macron has pledged extensive changes aimed at making French trains more efficient and less costly to operate ahead of the opening of the European market to passenger rail competition starting in 2020.

Unions also oppose the transformation of the SNCF into a joint-stock company whose shares would be held by the state — which they see as a first step to privatisation — and want the state to take on the bulk of its legacy debt.

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ENVIRONMENT

French trains ditch plastic water bottles

French national train operator SNCF has announced it will no longer sell water in plastic bottles on its services, saying the move would reduce the waste from roughly two million drinks.

French train bars will no longer be able to see plastic bottles of water.
French train bars will no longer be able to see plastic bottles of water. Photo: BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP.

The plastic packaging will be replaced with recyclable cardboard for still water and aluminium for sparkling.

“Plastic is no longer fantastic,” head of consumer travel operations at the SNCF, Alain Krakovitch, wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

France has gradually increased restrictions on single-use packaging to help reduce waste amid growing evidence about the impact of plastic on sea life in particular.

The government announced on Monday that plastic packaging will be banned for nearly all fruit and vegetables from January next year.

The environment ministry said that 37 percent of fruit and vegetables were sold with plastic packaging, and only the most fragile produce such as strawberries will be given an exemption on the ban until 2026.

“We use an outrageous amount of single-use plastic in our daily lives,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that it was working to cut back “the use of throwaway plastic and boost its substitution by other materials or reusable and recyclable packaging.”

Last year, France passed a wide-ranging “circular economy” law to combat waste that forbids retailers from destroying unsold clothes and will ban all single-use plastic containers by 2040.

Paris city authorities announced this week that they were aiming to eliminate all plastic from state day-care centres, canteens and retirement homes by 2026.

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