French rail strikes have cost 100m euros, says operator

PARIS: France’s rail operator said on Monday that the rolling strikes against plans to overhaul the debt-laden company had already cost it around 100 million euros ($123 million), with neither unions nor the government showing any willingness to back down.
Train drivers and other staff at the state-owned SNCF have vowed to continue walking off the job two days out of every five until at least June 28.
The stoppages are costing around 20 million euros per strike day with the disruption often spilling into non-strike days, SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy told BFM television on Monday, the fourth day of the strike.
“From what I can see, France has not been paralysed,” Pepy said, “but clients are being heavily penalised.”
Both sides are claiming broad public support, with unions pointing to 550,000 euros in donations as of Monday for a fund compensating striking workers’ lost wages.
“The more solidarity we see, the more it proves that our fight is justified,” Philippe Martinez of the CGT union, the largest at the SNCF, told Europe 1 radio.
“Nobody wants a long, difficult conflict but for now, we’re up against a wall,” Martinez said.
But an Ifop poll published on Sunday showed 62 per cent in favour of the government’s reforms, compared with a slim majority of 51 per cent in the same survey a week earlier.
“If we’re proposing a new rail pact for the country, it’s because reforming the system is essential,” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne told lawmakers as they began debating the reforms in parliament.
The shake-up “has a single goal of better meeting the expectations of our fellow citizens, in particular those who use (the rail network) daily,” Borne said, warning that the SNCF’s economic model “is no longer viable”.
President Emmanuel Macron, who has barely spoken publicly on the standoff, is set to give two high-profile television interviews this week, nearly a year after sweeping away France’s traditional parties with his election victory.
The 40-year-old centrist is pushing reforms for swathes of the French economy, but left-wing critics accuse him of taking a sledgehammer to public services.
Rail unions oppose his plans to do away with the jobs-for-life and early retirement guarantees enjoyed by current SNCF employees.
The SNCF would also be transformed into a private company whose shares are owned by the state — which unions see as a first step toward privatisation, despite government denials.
But Macron’s plan to push through the changes by decree has infuriated union leaders, who denounce the parliamentary debate as a charade by a government with no real desire to negotiate.  — AFP