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General Strike Begins in France

French President Emanuel Macron looks to break French unions while French labor fights back

Posted on
Apr 04, 2018

France is dealing with a nationwide transit strike, the first pushbacks unions have given to stop French President Emanuel Macron's pro-business changes.

Millions of French commuters faced a second day of transport chaos on Wednesday as rail workers continued what is expected to be three months of intermittent strikes – the first major test to Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business plan to reshape the French economy and loosen labour rules in the state sector.

Rail strikes are scheduled for two days out of every five until 28 June against Macron’s proposed sweeping changes to SNCF, France’s vast state rail network. It is the biggest industrial action against the centrist president since he took office last year.

About half of essential rail staff and a large majority of train drivers were expected to walk out. SNCF management said 29.7% of staff were taking part in the strike on Wednesday compared with 33.9% the previous day, but unions have given much higher figures of 60% or more on the first day.

Regional and local trains were severely limited, while one in seven high-speed TGV trains were running. International trains to Italy and Spain were stopped but three out of four Eurostar trains to London were operating.

The government insisted it would stand firm. The economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, said: “Our ability to hold firm in this drive to transform the SNCF will be decisive for our image abroad.”

The prime minister, Édouard Philippe, warned of difficult days ahead in the battle of wills between Macron and the unions, while the firebrand leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said the country was witnessing the “start of a social power struggle almost unknown in France”.

The rail sector is traditionally one of France’s riskiest political issues. Macron never pushed rail reform as a major part of his election platform of pro-business economic liberalisation. But his proposals to cut rail workers’ special employment rights and turn SNCF into a publicly listed company have become a symbolic battleground in the government’s plans to cut state spending and overhaul labour policies.

The government argues that the heavily in debt SNCF has to be made more efficient before local and national passenger services are opened up to competition under European Union rules.

The aim is to cut rail workers’ special employment rights, so that new hires would not have jobs for life or special retirement provisions. But there are also plans to change the SNCF structure, turning it into a publicly listed company.

Unions and politicians on the left fear this transformation into a publicly listed company – even with the state owning 100% of shares – could eventually lead to the rail operator being privatised. The striking workers argue they are defending the very notion of public service and the state sector.

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