June 11, 2018 / 10:58 AM / in 9 days

After months of strikes, France's Macron looks to break rail unions

PARIS (Reuters) - In early April, thousands of French rail workers filled a square outside one of Paris’s largest stations at the start of a strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms.

FILE PHOTO: French state-owned railway company SNCF workers and CGT labour union members demonstrate in Paris as part of a nationwide strike in France, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo

Letting off smoke flares and blowing whistles, they chanted slogans against the president’s plans to shake up the heavily subsidized and indebted state-run SNCF rail company.

More than two months later, on day 27 of a rolling strike meant to cripple rail traffic on 36 days over three months, not a single striker could be seen when Reuters went to the same square in front of the Gare de l’Est.

The strike is still going on: about half of all national and regional rail services were again halted for two days last week. Gare de l’Est was so empty that birdsong could be heard in the main concourse.

For graphic on French rail workers on strike click here

But Macron, who said from the beginning that he would not back down, has all but won the war over the SNCF, delivering a powerful blow in his campaign to modernize France’s labor force and end a long economic malaise.

Public support for the strike has fallen, according to opinion polls, and nearly two-thirds of the public back Macron’s proposals to remove some of the SNCF employees’ benefits and cut the company’s debt, a poll by research group Elabe showed.

Commuters have found ways around the strike, using car-sharing apps, working from home or cycling to work when stoppages hit for two days every five. Fewer train drivers, signal workers and conductors are now taking part in the strike.

Macron’s party’s strong majority in parliament means he is well placed to win the National Assembly’s backing for a law enacting the reforms of the SNCF in a vote set for Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: French state-owned railway company SNCF workers attend a demonstration against the French government's reform plans in Paris as part of a national day of protest, France, April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

On Monday, a committee from the National Assembly and the upper house Senate jointly agreed amendments to the text of the law, making passage of it all but certain.

Signaling his team’s confidence over the reform program, Macron’s chief of staff, Alexis Kohler, told Reuters in a recent briefing: “It’s started like a sprint but will soon turn into a marathon ... We’re working on the basis that we’ll have the capacity to reform.”

Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker who has been accused of arrogance, has made clear he will not let strikes derail his ambitions. He told TF1 television in April: “Public opinion is not an objective in itself, sorry to be so blunt.”

MORE BATTLES AHEAD

It’s a far cry from 1995, when a conservative government led by Prime Minister Alain Juppe squared off against the unions over plans to reform the welfare state. After nearly four weeks of strikes that paralyzed the nation, Juppe dropped the plans.

Back then, the railway workers led the resistance with a strike that swelled into broader public sector unrest. This time, they have not inspired the same solidarity.

The left-wing opposition, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, has tried to persuade students and disgruntled civil servants to strike in solidarity with the SNCF workers. He had some success widening the protest movement early on in the strike, but it has not been sustained and Melenchon has fallen quiet.

FILE PHOTO: Empty platforms are pictured at Gare de l'Est train station during a nationwide strike by French SNCF railway workers in Paris, France, April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

On the right, the opposition Republicains largely agree with Macron’s effort to overhaul the SNCF. The far-right National Front is firmly behind the rail workers, but that stance has not helped the party land blows on Macron.

While French union membership has stayed steady at around 8 percent of the workforce since the mid-1990s, the unions’ clout has declined and the main ones are no longer aligned in their positions. The biggest union is now the most moderate.

Since taking office in May last year, Macron has exploited those differences, building ties with those prepared to negotiate. Overhauling France’s labor rules last year that make it simpler to hire and fire, he won the support early on of the CFDT, the largest and least ideologically rigid of the unions.

The battle with the 150,000-strong SNCF employees has, if anything, been tougher. Macron’s proposals involve the biggest shake-up of the railways since they were nationalized in the 1930s. Many had written the SNCF off as unreformable.

But Macron managed to get across the message that the world has changed and that the SNCF’s decades-old, jobs-for-life protections cannot go on forever. He has also pointed out that rail liberalization is obligatory under European Union rules, with France behind other member states in meeting requirements.

Macron wants the SNCF to make a profit but says the reforms are not about preparing the company for privatization.

That reassurance has gone down well with the CFDT, as did an offer to write off 35 billion euros of the SNCF’s 47 billion euros of debt if the unions sign up to the changes.

“The trade unions’ lack of effectiveness is partly due to their fragmentation,” Laurent Berger, the head of the CFDT, told the union’s congress on Friday. “We must show much more clearly that French unions have changed and that there is a reformist stream.”

Macron’s planned reforms would change the SNCF into a joint-stock company, phase out its monopoly on passenger traffic and mean that future employees will not receive all the benefits that are enjoyed now.

The CFDT has shown no sign that it will extend the strike after the scheduled end of the stoppages on June 28.

The more militant CGT is expected to reject the law after it is approved by parliament and has said it will launch wild-cat strikes. But Macron, who will turn his attention next to reforming social benefits and pensions — a potentially much tougher battle — has made clear he will not be deterred.

“That some people are not happy doesn’t stop me,” he said in the interview on TF1, adding that he would keep up the pace of reforms in France to “prepare it for the next 50 years”.

Editing by Timothy Heritage

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