French Rail Strike Enters Second Week!

Montpellier train drivers banner says more jobs in the regions – more money for pensions
Montpellier train drivers banner says more jobs in the regions – more money for pensions

FRANCE”S longest rail strike in years entered its second week on Monday, causing major disruptions in a crucial test for President Francois Hollande’s embattled reformist government.

The strike crippled France’s rail network, and disrupted the plans of millions of travellers as the country’s crucial tourist season entered its peak.

On Monday, train workers voted to continue the strike for another 24 hours, stretching the walk-out to Tuesday, when the French parliament were set to debate rail reforms.

The French parliament is debating ‘reforms’ to tackle the soaring debts of the French rail network, which is a state monopoly, including the merger of SNCF and the RFF, the rail infrastructure, into one body, as it was before 1997. The reforms also set out how the company will prepare private competition, as required by EU treaties.

Unions say the reforms will do little to reduce the debt, currently at around 40 billion euros and set to rise to 80 billion euros by 2025. Monday was the sixth day of the industrial action that saw half the high-speed TGV trains cancelled, while regional and other intercity services were seriously disrupted.

The strikes are the biggest industrial action since Hollande’s government took office. Along with other EU countries, France’s deficit continues to rise amid a stagnant economy and rising joblessness.

The SNCF said up to two-thirds of trains were cancelled on some high-speed TGV lines, while only one in two trains were running on other lines. Less than half of scheduled trains were running on inter-city lines and only a quarter on Paris region lines.

On the roads, 280km of tailbacks – more than twice normal levels – were reported on Ile-de-France at 8am as people struggled into work. Shortly after 9am on Monday tailbacks peaked at nearly 310km.

The head of the SNCF rail operator, Guillaume Pepy, said the strike had already cost 80 million euros ($108 million) in lost revenues and reimbursements.

The ongoing strike has also hit international rail links, Italy and Spain particularly, although Eurostar trains connecting Paris and London, and the Thalys service from Paris to Brussels, Amsterdam and Germany, had some trains running. Overnight from Saturday to Sunday, 2,300 passengers on two TGV trains were trapped for hours after a power cut.

But French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called for the debate to go on, blasting the strike as ‘useless and irresponsible, especially in the first day of the baccalauréat’. He said: ‘The SNCF needs reform, the workers need the reforms, and the debate will go ahead as scheduled.

‘We don’t see how the strike makes sense when talks are continuing and the government’s doors remain open,’ Valls claimed.

On Monday, SNCF was forced to implement costly special measures – including bringing in thousands of scabs – to ensure high school students were given priority places as they headed to sit their final exams.

Monday was the beginning of the ‘baccalauréat’ exams for 17 and 18-year-old students, the most important event in the school calendar.

Special trains and buses were put in place on lines serving schools and baccalaureate test centres. The first exam, which is always Philosophy taken by every school leaver, began at 8am Paris time (GMT+2).

Rail workers’ unions said the ‘mobilisation remained strong’ and that the strike would continue, at least until Tuesday. In train stations across the country tens of thousands of special stickers were handed out to students headed to exams, so that they could be quickly identified and given priority over commuters and other passengers.

The government, allowed candidates an extra hour on their exams if late because of the strike. The rail sector has soaring debt of more than 40 billion euros which is set to almost double by 2025.

Management are looking to cut costs by joining the SNCF train operator with RFF railway network and open up parts of the service to private companies. The unions say the plans will lead to job losses without reducing the debt.

Although some weaker unions signed up to the reforms after government promises, two of the largest unions are backing the strikes, the CGT and Sud-Rail.

Despite discussion with Frederi Cuvilier, the Minister for Transport the previous Wednesday and Thursday’, both the CGT and SUD-Rail were quick to dispel hopes of a quick end to the dispute.

On Friday, June 13, Thierry Lepaon, Secretary General of the CGT, and Gilbert Garrel, secretary general of the CGT railway, sent a letter to the president of the republic.

The Union said: ‘This message heard them solicit the commitment of the head of state to find a way out of the conflict to the SNCF. This possibility has not been accepted by the President of the Republic and to this day, Monday, June 16 at 13:00, no meeting is scheduled with the government.

‘In addition, the cancellation of the roundtable scheduled for this Monday, June 16 by the director of the station signifies that the government will not have dialogue with representatives of the railway in struggle’.

Gilbert Garrel, secretary general of the CGT railway said during the demonstration of 20,000 railway workers in Paris: ‘If there is a postponement (of the parliamentary discussion), suspension of the strike will be proposed. Otherwise, the movement will continue.’

SUD-Rail’s Nathalie Bonnet expressed the union’s readiness to return to the negotiating table after it left last Thursday’s meeting early, on condition that the government defers this week’s debate on railway reform.

But Cuvillier said the debate would continue as planned, and he would sign a deal on railway modernisation on Monday with unions not involved in the current dispute, including CFDT and Unsa, repeating his mantra that he would ‘work with those who want to work’.

CGT General Secretary Gilbert Garrel responded: ‘The ball is in the government’s court.’ He insisted the union ‘had not closed the door to dialogue’ with the government. ‘Our phones are always switched on.’

On Monday, Luc Chatel, a former education minister and current secretary general of the conservative opposition UMP party, called on the government to stop the debate and criticised rail unions for ‘taking France’s pupils hostage’.

‘These reforms are badly set out . . . and don’t adequately prepare France’s rail network for competition in the future,’ he told RTL radio.

‘There is a crisis in this country that has filtered all the way down to messing up the most important exams for young French people,’ he added. ‘The bac is sacred in France. It is a symbol of our national life that merits a spirit of national unity.’

Jean-Claude Mailly, secretary general of Force Ouvrière, tried to reassure worried students. He said: ‘Reform is essential,’ though he urged the government to amend the proposals.

‘There are not enough safeguards,’ he said.