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7 May 2018

France: the reform of the French railways; what are the plans?

Plans to strip train drivers of their special working conditions, including retirement at 52, have led to an ongoing series of countrywide strikes. The SNCF dispute has been largely responsible for sparking industrial action in other public services. Meetings between trade unions and the government ended so far without any result.

The French government announced in early 2018 an ambitious effort to reform the SNCF, the national railway operator. The announcement came shortly after the publication of a report, commissioned by the government, on the national railway strategy. The report was written by Jean-Cyril Spinetta, a senior executive in state-owned companies. The government took on most of the recommendations and announced the start of consultations with the unions. In the following weeks, trade unions have called for countrywide strikes to protest against the reform. Although several opinion polls suggest that the population is divided, with close margins for and against the countrywide protest, the reform announcement has led to strike action that crippled the public transport system. In the meantime, meetings between the government and the unions have not led to a compromise.   

The report that analyses the current position of the national railways has listed several challenges for the near future. It talks about the key role that the railways plays and can play in the future, given population growth and the need to find sustainable solutions for increasing mobility. The report also talks about underperformance, growth in costs and imbalances in the financing of the existing network. Therefore, the allocation of financial resources must become more efficient and services have to improve without loading extra costs onto the public budget. This is provably the least controversial of the conclusions.

It becomes more problematic as soon as the report enters the debate on how to minimise the costs. The report suggests opening the system to competition and transforming the railways into a national company with public-sector capital. Trade union CGT, for instance, fears that this will result in a privatisation of the railways. The most controversial aspect of the proposals is to bring to an end the status of the ‘cheminots’, the railway workers that have their own labour contract with several special working conditions and provisions (such as lifetime job security, automatic pay indexations, early retirement and free train tickets for their families) The reform plan introduces a policy where these conditions would fade out for future workers, who would be hired under private sector rules.

Observers say that the government has taken a great risk by starting with a whole series of reforms to a nationally-symbolic company, which were unpopular even before the change of the political landscape.

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