International

French Parliament approves rail reform on eve of strike

Leftist La France Insoumise (LFI) party members of parliament Francois Ruffin (back row 2nd R), Bastien Lachaud (3rd row R), Eric Coquerel (second row C), Adrien Quatennens (front row L) and LFI party leader Jean-Luc Melenchon attend the vote on the draftlaw of the French railway reform, at the French National Assembly, in Paris, on April 17, 2018. / AFP / GERARD JULIEN

PARIS: France’s lower house of Parliament Tuesday approved the biggest railway shake-up since nationalization with a bill that will abolish the state monopoly, shrugging off fierce union opposition and rolling strikes. The approval vote in France’s National Assembly appeared to push one of President Emmanuel Macron’s flagship reforms beyond the point of no return, hours before yet another two-day train strike, the fourth since the start of April.

The showdown with rail unions, billed as the biggest test so far of Macron’s determination to see through a raft of economic reform, now turns into more of an endurance test for SNCF staff – there are 150,000 – whose pay is cut when they refuse to work.

Another vote is scheduled in the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, in May before the process of parliamentary approval is completed, which should now happen by early July at the very latest, a Transport Ministry official said.

Hallmarks of the legislative reform, the biggest since nationalization in 1937, include 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 job-for-life contracts than in other sectors.

A third major strut of the reform will change the corporate structure into a joint-stock company. The government insists it will remain 100 percent state-owned but unions fear this opens the door to privatization, as happened after similar changes to the corporate structure of France Telecom, now called Orange.

Macron has stood firm in the face of unions whose strike call – nationwide stoppages two days in every five days up to the end of June – has crippled services each time since it began on April 3.

Behind the united front on industrial action, unions have different objectives. The CGT and Sud-Rail unions oppose open competition while the CFDT and Unsa unions above all want the government to absorb 46 billion euros ($57 billion) of SNCF debt. Macron said Sunday the state was ready to take over SNCF debt, mostly generated by investment in TGV high-speed lines.

But he remained vague on how much – a stand unions have branded as insufficient. What Macron and the rest of France will be watching now is the turnout and impact of this week’s strike Wednesday and Thursday and in the coming few weeks.

Opinion polls show a majority of French people are in favor of the reform, although various soundings have also showed voters want the government to take account of union demands.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 18, 2018, on page 4.

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