In Challenge to Macron, French Strikes Snarl Transport

Above French President Emmanuel Macron Image Credit Reuters

A strike at railway operator SNCF began Monday evening and will run through Thursday morning, with only one in every eight long-distance trains running and one-in-five shorter regional trips due to depart on Tuesday.

Three-quarters of Eurostar trains to London and Brussels were running on Tuesday and Thalys trains towards Belgium and the Netherlands were operating nearly normally, but there were none at all to Spain, Italy or Switzerland. Over the next three months, the rail strikes are slated to affect two out of every five working days.

Rail workers are protesting plans to eliminate a special status that they've enjoyed for decades.

No trains were set to run between France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

Macron eyed the reforms to make France more competitive and his plans were being compared with former United Kingdom prime minister Margaret Thatcher's showdown with the coal unions of Britain in the 1980s.

France's transport minister Elisabeth Borne said there were no plans to privatize SNCF and suggested that opening up the country's high-speed trains to competition would mean "more trains, new services, cheaper tickets".

Despite the planned rolling strikes by rail workers, Macron plans to push through the SNCF overhaul by executive order, which will allow him to avoid parliamentary debate.

A coalition of 12 left-wing parties, ranging from the Greens to the Maoist Communist Party of French Workers (PCOF), has been formed to resist "the breakup of the SNCF", a precursor to the government's goal of breaking up the organized public service sector in France.


The unions appear weaker now, however, and are divided over their responses to Macron's many social and economic reforms. They are beginning an unlimited strike April 3, but the union has already held job actions in several cities.

However, labour unions hit back at the government's portrayal of railway workers.

Farid Hachelef, a 32-year-old who works in construction, said he had spent the night in Paris with a friend rather than trying to travel in from the northern suburb of Argenteuil, "otherwise, I would never make it".

Macron says the SNCF, saddled with 46.6 billion euros ($57.5 billion) of debt, needs to make major changes as European Union countries prepare to open passenger rail to competition by 2020.It is 30 percent more expensive to run a train in France than elsewhere in Europe, according to his government, which wants to strip new SNCF hires of special rail workers' status guaranteeing jobs for life and early retirement.

Macron wants to transform heavily indebted SNCF into a profit-maker.

The unions say the debt was caused by excessive investment in TGV trains at the expense of everyday connections and accuse Macron of paving the way for privatisation.

Borne also said she was looking for dialogue with the unions, a claim that Santinelli, the rail union spokesman, disputed. Sanitation and sewage workers are going out on strike during the first week of April and are considering staying out until June.

Pensioners, students and public sector workers have also taken to the streets in recent weeks protesting against far-reaching reforms by Macron, who insists he was elected on a mandate for change.

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