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French PM takes hard line on rail reform, unions decry 'arrogance'

PARIS (Reuters) - Emmanuel Macron’s prime minister said on Thursday the government would not back down in a shake-up of France’s state-owned SNCF railways, prompting accusations of arrogance from unions who said further strikes would go ahead as planned.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe adresses the media during a news conference at the Hotel de Matignon in Paris, France, April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Rail services were crippled over the past two days as unions launched three months of rolling stoppages, marking the toughest test yet of Macron’s push for broad economic reform - with faint echoes of a protest that escalated to topple a government in 1995.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe described as non-negotiable government plans to stop hiring of railway workers on generous job-for-life contracts - a stance that the head of the most moderate of the four striking unions called unacceptable.

The CFDT would take part in the next stoppage, scheduled for Sunday, because “what the government has proposed is not acceptable,” its leader Laurent Berger told BFM TV.

Philippe also rejected union demands to clarify the government’s position on a state takeover of 46 billion euros ($57 billion) of SNCF debt, saying those talks would only happen if and when the rest of the SNCF reorganisation was agreed.

“When we presented this reform we said a number of things were not negotiable,” he told France Inter radio, listing the end of the SNCF monopoly, the restructuring of the SNCF and an end to recruitment on decades-old terms.

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Macron won power in May pledging to modernise France, and has pushed through other reforms, including cuts in wealth tax and an easing of job protection laws, with little trouble so far.

Polls also show a majority of French support his SNCF reform plans, though there are signs the mood could shift.

For now there appears no imminent risk of the rail protests escalating into a broader backlash as in 1995 over social welfare reform, which ultimately led to President Jacques Chirac dissolving the government.

But other protests are simmering, even if they have for now not coalesced into a single, more potent movement.

Students unhappy about changes in entry-selection criteria have mounted blockades and sit-ins at universities in several cities, while CGT union members have led industrial action at rubbish incineration site in Paris.

An Elabe poll on Wednesday showed a six-point increase in those supporting the protests to 44 percent, and slightly more than half said the government should amend its plans for the SNCF in light of the unions’ demands.

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Philippe Martinez, head of the hardline CGT, the dominant union among some 150,000 staff at the SNCF, accused Philippe and the government of resorting to blackmail.

“They’re basically saying ‘everything’s up for discussion, except what we decided before you entered the room,” he told public service channel Franceinfo TV.

The CFDT union’s Berger added that, while he was neither pro- nor anti-Macron, “you cannot change a country if you don’t bring people on board. The government will stumble if it keeps acting arrogantly.”

Macron has so far kept his distance and left his ministers to battle in defence of the SNCF shake-up.

During a visit on Thursday to a care facility for autistic children, Macron brushed off questions on the SNCF and said health sector reforms were on the way too.

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Additional reporting by Laurence Frost, Caroline Pailliez and Richard Lough; Editing by Richard Lough and John Stonestreet