French rail unions gear up for strike action over reform plans

French unions met on Tuesday to gear up for strike action over plans by Emmanuel Macron to reform loss-making rail company SNCF, as opinion polls suggested the president had voters on his side.

SNCF unions were instrumental in engineering the last retreat by a French government on major economic reforms when, in 1995, they led three weeks of strikes that forced then Prime Minister Alain Juppe to resign.

This time they are threatening strikes from mid-March in response to an overhaul that includes a proposal to scrap the job-for-life contracts railworkers have enjoyed since the service was nationalized in the 1930s.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Marie urged the unions to reconsider, saying the SNCF could not go on as it is, losing 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) a year and paying 1 billion euros in interest on its debt, which tops 45 billion euros.

Without reform, the state-owned SNCF “will run straight into a wall,” Le Marie told France 2 public TV. “Once the SNCF returns to profit… we can envisage the state taking over the SNCF’s debt.”

The plan is among the politically riskiest that Macron has embarked on since he was elected in May 2017 on pledges to modernize France’s economy.

The government said on Monday it would push through the SNCF reform by decree rather than submitting it to parliamentary debates and voting, and an Odoxa poll published on Tuesday showed the president’s popularity rating at its lowest since he took office.

But is also showed 69 percent in favor of ending job-for-life contracts, a view shared by an equally large proportion of respondents in a second survey compiled by Harris.

On Monday, the CFDT urged three other unions – CGT, Sud, Unsa – to join in a rolling strike from March 12.

With the four organizations meeting on Tuesday to decide whether to coordinate their responses to the reform, the head of the hard-left CGT, Philippe Martinez, said it was time to fight back against Macron and his government.

“We cannot stand by and let this happen,” he said. “This is about the future of the public service.”

The leader of the CGT section within the SNCF spoke of a month-long strike to force the government into retreat.

In a sign that 40-year-old former investment banker Macron’s style is also grating with more reform-minded unions, CFDT head Laurent Berger warned against bulldozing reform through what he said was scant respect for negotiation and parliamentary process.

“If the government rushes things too much things will not go well,” he said in an interview in Les Echos newspaper.

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