French rail workers strike against reform, Macron says no turning back

PARIS (Reuters) - Striking French rail staff halted train services for the seventh day this month on Wednesday in protest over a major shake-up of the state-owned railway company, but President Emmanuel Macron said he would not be cowed into retreat.

The rolling strikes, due to continue until the end of June, entered a more testing phase for unions at the SNCF rail company a day after the lower house of parliament approved the bill they are fighting, which will end the SNCF monopoly.

Macron, confronted by protesters on a walkabout in eastern France, reiterated his determination to see the SNCF reformed, telling one detractor: “You can grumble, but do not block the whole country.”

SNCF management said about one in five staff (19.84 percent) did not work, slightly down from a 22.5 percent strike rate on April 12 and more noticeably down on a strike rate of close to 30 percent when industrial action began on April 3.

All four major unions are contesting a reform that is the biggest since nationalisation of the railways in 1937 and seen as a test of Macron’s determination to pursue a broader raft of economic and social reforms during a term that runs to 2022.

Around one in three high-speed TGV trains were running and two in five regional trains on Wednesday, while international services were down to about 75 percent of normal.

That was a slightly lower impact than at the outset of the strikes but not to a degree that suggested Tuesday’s resounding pro-reform vote in the National Assembly had broken the back of the strike.

FILE PHOTO: An employee of French state-owned railway company SNCF advises a passenger at the Gare Lille Flandres railway station during a nationwide strike by French SNCF railway workers, in Lille, France, April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The Communist-rooted CGT union sought to raise the heat on Macron with a strike call at the Paris subway transport company, RATP, which is not targeted by the national railway reforms.

CGT boss Philippe Martinez said no-show estimates were a bit lower than in early April but in no way suggested resistance was flagging.

Another CGT representative in the utility sector warned that his union could tamper with power supplies and cause more train delays out of solidarity with rail workers.

Hallmarks of the reform include a gradual phase-out of the SNCF’s passenger rail monopoly, starting with competition on high-speed lines in 2020, and an end to hiring of SNCF staff on more protective contracts than in other sectors.

A third strut of the reform will change the SNCF’s corporate structure to a joint-stock company. While the government says it will remain 100 percent state-owned, unions fear that opens the door to privatisation, as happened after similar changes at France Telecom, now called Orange.

Macron has hatched a plethora of reforms he says are needed to modernise France. He has loosened protective labour legislation by executive order and is looking to scale back the civil service and revamp the pension system.

The SNCF bill will now go to the Senate and the process of parliamentary approval is expected to conclude by early July.

Macron, days away from completing his first year in office, resolutely defended his broader reform push on a meet-the-people sortie in the eastern town of Saint-Die-des-Vosges, where he was mobbed by well-wishers, protesters and TV cameras.

The 40-year-old president said he would not change course and decried what he called “activists ... people who decide to be against everything”.

An Ifop poll released on Wednesday showed far more voters find him faithful to his election pledges than predecessors: 57 percent said he was doing as promised, versus 24 percent for Francois Hollande before him and 35 percent for Nicolas Sarkozy.

Additional reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Julie Carriat; Editing by Mark Heinrich