Macron's showdown with the unions

Employees of the French state railway SNCF began a three-month industrial action a week ago, bringing train traffic to a halt across much of the country. In protest against Macron's reform plans, which among other things aim to abolish privileges for SNCF employees, the rail workers plan to strike two out of every five workdays until the end of June. Is this industrial dispute driven by outdated egoism or commitment to the public good?

Open/close all quotes
Le Figaro (FR) /

This strike benefits no one

The strike is egoistic and anachronistic, philosopher Henri Pena-Ruiz writes in Le Figaro:

“It is in no one's interest to maintain a company with colossal debts that is ill-prepared for competition and whose services are increasingly under fire. In opposing reorganisation, however, the unionists are endangering their future and that of the public service the French so love. Consequently their fight strikes one as a rearguard action and profoundly egoistical. It's even a disgrace, because the SNCF does not belong to the rail workers but above all to their customers, who have the right to demand a transportation service that justifies the billions of euros they pour into it each year.”

Libération (FR) /

Bulwark against the aberrations of privatisation

The rail workers' fight is important to prevent conditions like those in the UK from becoming the norm in France, Libération writes:

“The Brits pay three to four times more for rail transport than we do. Is that really what we want? 'Private service in the public hand' as an alternative to a real public service is a myth. ... Dear rail workers, hang in there, your fight is universal! You are defending the general interest. ... Despite the media smear campaign there are more and more people who support you, because your movement is exemplary. You uphold the public service ideal of solidarity. Your fight holds out a promise for the future: that of a society that preserves a sense of the common good.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

A dangerous showdown

Macron's seeking confrontation with the powerful rail unions even though there are more important issues to be addressed could backfire, the Süddeutsche Zeitung comments:

“Behind Macron's escalation strategy is the widespread belief in France that the president must establish himself as a leader by winning the 'mother of all battles' at the start of his term in office. ... This not only testifies to an archaic understanding of authority. Presenting the changes at SNCF as a sign of France's ability to modernise is a move that threatens to backfire on Macron. For it can't be ruled out that owing to massive resistance from rail employees the SNCF reform will fail - and the president along with it, or at the very least he would be seen as weakened. Other reforms that are provoking less resistance would then also be blocked.”

The Guardian (GB) /

SNCF has no future without reforms

The privatised British rail system is held up by French unionists as a warning and a justification for their resistance to reform. But the comparison does not hold water, The Guardian cautions:

“Britain's chaotic recent rail history certainly has lessons for France. Here again, though, the closer one looks, the more distinct the two situations are. Britain's rail system is a lesson in the dangers of unreformed privatisation. France's exemplifies the problems of an unreformed nationalised system. The truth is that they both need to change, not to swap identities.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Unfair privileges

The French government's initiative is long overdue, the New Zürcher Zeitung finds:

“The focus here is on the 'railway employee status' which most SNCF employees enjoy. Their privileges are untenable and unfair vis-à-vis workers in other sectors. There's the lifelong protection against dismissal. And the easily accessible extra holidays, meaning that rail employees can have as many as 50 free days per year. As the business paper Les Echos explains, until 2016 train drivers could retire at 50 and other rail employees at the very early age of 55.”

Libération (FR) /

Macron taking on the right and the left

Not just French rail workers but also nurses, pilots and students are making demands and voicing criticism. Libération explains what could unite them:

“These movements - or at least most of them - have one thing in common: they reject liberalisation and defend a certain tradition of public service. ... And that is where the danger lies for the government. ... Despite the supposed emergence of a 'new world', defending the state's social role remains a constant in France that extends beyond the parties' traditional boundaries. It's found in various guises across the left but also in the populist discourses of the right-wing conservatives. Such a union has yet to be formed, but it could emerge step by step.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Macron wants to slaughter the holy cow

The special contracts for French rail workers give them lifelong job protection, 50 days of holiday per year and a pension at 52. De Volkskrant explains why Macron's reforms aim to change that:

“Macron's attack has a huge political and symbolic significance. The railway workers' status dates back to the 1920s and has become the holy cow of the French workers' movement. Numerous politicians have tried to reform it but failed. If Macron is able to abolish it he will make history and pave the way for other reforms. For the president the status is the symbol of an outdated world in which workers are protected by iron-clad legislation. But that, he believes, collides with the flexibility the new world demands.”

Le Figaro (FR) /

Don't give in to pressure from the street

Macron will only achieve his political goals if he can win this conflict, Le Figaro comments:

“He's ready to step into the ring. Emmanuel Macron risks far more than failure in this prolonged conflict with the rail workers. The president's ability to reach his declared objective of changing the country and getting it back on its feet are at stake. ... Since his election, the head of state has done his best not to tread in his predecessors' footsteps. Standing up to the demonstrators and the rail workers and reforming the SNCF from the ground up would indeed be a first in this country.”

Les Echos (FR) /

Stress test for the president

The French president must be prepared for a lengthy battle, Les Echos predicts:

“France remains the world champion in striking. ... Even if there are no reliable indicators because every country has its own way of measuring such conflicts, the French economy is that with the highest number of lost working days per employee. ... The rail workers still have the power to mobilise a lot of support for a strike, and they can still do much damage. That doesn't mean the looming conflict will spill over into other areas - the [confederation of trade unions] CGT remains isolated regarding its present strategy. But for the majority this strike is a political test that will go on for some time - and that will make its mark on Macron's term as president.”

Le Point (FR) /

Macron can't win

The unions have come up with a clever idea, Le Point writes:

“This is new! The railway unions have announced a strike from April 3 to June 28, striking two days out of five. For travellers that means 36 days of planned interruption over three months. That's creative! A three-month period of guaranteed disarray, just one and a half months of salary losses for the strikers, and all that within the bargaining period set by the government. That took some thinking. At least the government has been warned. It has fifteen days to negotiate. ... If Macron yields ground, people will say he ceded to pressure from the street - or in this case from the railways - just like his predecessors. But if he remains inflexible he risks a 'nervous breakdown' à la Juppé in 1995.”

Le Figaro (FR) /

Contempt for passengers

The railway employees clearly couldn't care less about their customers, Le Figaro fumes:

“The unions have thrown themselves into the debate about whether railway personnel should continue to benefit from inherent privileges. But they've buried the debate over the inefficiency of a public service that no longer fulfils its mission and whose mistakes are financed by taxpayers. If they really wanted to improve the quality of services while keeping prices relatively low and retaining control over management decisions, they should have accepted this reform with good will! Henceforth the strike is no longer synonymous with safeguarding a public service but with a lamentable contempt for those who use it. ... The French people are right to support the government's project.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

Good for all of Europe

The Süddeutsche Zeitung hopes that France will finally open up to Europe's rail transport sector with the reform:

“The EU has been pushing for this for years. But until now every president in Paris, right or left, knew: France's railway networks are not competitive on a European scale. That's why the country has been protecting its national railways while at the same time allowing the company to expand into other EU countries that had opened up their markets, including Germany. That too was unfair and went against the rules. Macron's reform could now make the state-owned company more competitive. If it does, this could be the first step towards a mutual opening of the kind that is essential if the EU single market is to function properly.”

Le Figaro (FR) /

The French are ready: it's now or never!

Finally the government is breaking with the tradition of letting the bargaining partners settle their quarrels on their own, Le Figaro writes in praise:

“If the unions are so angry today it's because the method of the current government under Prime Minister Philippe breaks with this institutionalised buck-passing. For the first time in a long time politicians have retaken control of the situation and reached a decision. That's no guarantee that the promised 'transformation' will be a success. But at least the government is giving it a try. Good news, according to the opinion polls. Tired of being stuck in the mud, the French are more ready for bold steps than they were in the past. After so many postponements it's now or never for reforms.”