Emmanuel Macron’s trial of strength with France’s railway unions

Credit: ludovic MARIN/Getty Images


Emmanuel Macron pulled off the first major reform of his presidency — a loosening of France’s overly rigid jobs market — without having to weather a sustained confrontation with the country’s still powerful unions. Now he has deliberately set himself on a collision course with the most militant of them.

That is the effect, if not the intention, of plans for the overhaul of SNCF, the state-owned train operator, outlined on Monday by Edouard Philippe, the prime minister. He aims to shake up the governance of SNCF, forcing it to become more efficient and prepare for an opening to competition. Crucially, he will also end the sacrosanct status of rail workers: new recruits will no longer enjoy the job security, automatic pay rises, early retirement and generous pension entitlements that have been fixed in law for more than a century. If necessary, he will drive the reform through with a minimum of consultation using “ordinances”, an expedited parliamentary procedure.

This reform is important in its own right. France’s high speed rail links are a matter of national pride but crowded commuter routes are suffering from chronic under-investment, even though public subsidies to the network amount to some €10.5bn a year and SNCF’s debt is of dizzying proportions.

Poor governance is part of the problem: a report by Jean-Cyril Spinetta, former head of Air France, makes it clear that managers have no real incentive to control costs. But the protected status of employees also makes it all but impossible for them to do so.

However, the symbolic significance of the initiative is far greater. An attempt to reform SNCF was one of the triggers for the wave of strikes that paralysed France in 1995, the first year of Jacques Chirac’s presidency, with railway workers joined by teachers, postal workers and others until prime minister Alain Juppé abandoned his plans for welfare cutbacks. Rail workers also played a leading role in the strikes and protests that diluted Nicolas Sarkozy’s early drive for pension reform.

Mr Macron has laid down the gauntlet and the unions are accepting the challenge — with the largest in SNCF, the CGT-Cheminots, already threatening a month of strike action.

This is a risky move, when Mr Macron is already fighting on so many fronts to advance his iconoclastic agenda — promising a revolution in farming and an overhaul of the treasured baccalaureate. His approval ratings fell below 50 per cent this month, reflecting discontent over tax increases for pensioners and smokers, public service cuts and pro-business measures viewed as plugs for the rich.

There are some signs of caution on the part of the government. It has not adopted the Spinetta report’s recommendation to close down little-used rail lines, a move that would have provoked fury in rural communities. It has also delayed announcing a separate reform of vocational training that will be seen as an existential issue by the unions, which have traditionally organised training in partnership with employers and see this function as a cornerstone of France’s welfare state.

A measure of caution is justified. But Mr Macron must keep up the momentum of reform as he reaches the end of his first year in office. And if he is to meet his promise to transform France, he must tackle the toughest challenge: trimming the size of the state.

In this context, the reform of SNCF — in itself necessary and overdue — is a calculated gamble. Mr Macron is betting that public opinion has changed since the last trial of strength with the railway unions. So far, his political instincts have proved pitch perfect. If anyone can pull it off, he can.

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