Macron wins parliament nod for rail reform

Paris: French senators on Thursday approved an overhaul of the debt-laden state rail operator SNCF, handing President Emmanuel Macron a key victory in his push to reform wide swathes of France’s economy.
The government pushed through the emblematic shake-up of train services despite stiff resistance from rail workers and their unions, who have carried out their longest strike in three decades trying to derail the plan.
Yet union leaders have refused to give up, vowing to pursue their rolling strike until at least June 28, when they plan a “massive” turnout against Macron’s reform drive, including his plans to cut 120,000 public-sector jobs.
“The law has been passed definitively, and it will be applied,” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said after the Senate voted to pass the measure, its final legislative hurdle.
“Unions don’t make the laws, parliament does. And parliament has listened extensively to the unions,” added Gerard Cornu, the senator in Macron’s Republic on the Move party who spearheaded the rail law.
“The strike no longer serves any purpose,” he said. Unions have failed to win over public opinion since the strike began in April, with workers walking off the job every two days out of five.
Just 12.8 per cent of SNCF workers participated in the most recent strike on Wednesday, the lowest rate since it started, and disruptions to the country’s 4.5 million daily rail passengers have eased markedly in recent weeks.
Train drivers in particular are resisting plans to deny job and pension guarantees to new recruits, as well as plans to turn the SNCF into a joint-stock company, which they see as a first step towards privatisation.
The government however has agreed to enshrine in law its pledge not to sell the new SNCF shares being created as part of the corporate revamp, addressing a key union concern.
The government argues that the loss-making SNCF — a bastion of French trade unionism — needs to cut costs and improve flexibility before the EU passenger rail market is opened up to competition.
The company has some 47 billion euros ($55 billion) in legacy debt, much of it stemming from the rollout of the sleek high-speed TGV trains, long a source of national pride.
It is also carrying a huge pension burden since for decades drivers could retire in their early 50s.
Meanwhile, investments in tracks and rolling stock have lagged on regular inter-city and commuter lines, leading to longer journeys and increased delays.
The government has pledged to absorb 35 billion euros of the operator’s debt along with 3.6 billion euros of infrastructure spending over the next 10 years. Macron made cutting France’s deficit and streamlining public services a key pledge of his election campaign last year.
He had already overcome union resistance last year to changes in labour laws aimed at encouraging businesses to hire by making it easier to dismiss workers.
His success in holding firm against the SNCF unions could clear the path for other reform pledges he has announced, including overhauls of the pension system and the vast public sector. — AFP