The French railway network is justifiably one of France’s pride and joy assets, affording an extensive network of comfortable rail transportation services in nearly every corner of France. It is rated as one of the best in the world, when taking into account speed, comfort, punctuality, price and safety. Each day 14 million passengers use it. Few countries offer such attractive rail travel as France does, but it has come at a cost: 50 billion euros of debt, and counting, which is widely believed to be unsustainable.
Arguments rage as to whether the debt is the result of poor management decisions. Others point to the privileged labor contracts enjoyed by employees of the French national railway network, the SNCF, asserting that it contributes heavily to the problem. The government of Emmanuel Macron is now engaged in a determined effort to reform the labor contracts of France’s railway workers, who are known in France, somewhat affectionately, as ‘cheminot.’ One of the controversial aspects of that effort is that Macron is trying to accomplish it while by-passing the French parliament, to promulgate the reforms by decree.
The response of the cheminot has been to launch what is called a ‘rolling’ strike, whereby for the months of April, May and June, 2018, railway workers will not work for two days, then resume work for the next three days, and then repeat the cycle. If you plan to travel to France in those three months and you need to travel by rail at some point, this strike should concern you, as it affects all of France’s extensive rail services, including the Eurostar, Thalys, Lyria, TGV, Intercities, TER, RER and Transilien networks. You can consult the following calendar to see if your date(s) will be affected: https://worldinparis.com/transport-in-france-strike-news-tips-for-traveling-to-paris.
To understand the critics of the labor contracts of the cheminot, one can point to their special status, which began in 1938, and applies to 92% of the 150,000 SNCF employees, which includes: having a job for life that cannot be terminated for economic reasons, enjoying regular salary increases, having the right to retire in the 52-57 year age range, benefiting from pension terms based on the last six months of employment, getting 90% off of rail ticket prices for the employee, the employee’s spouse and children, plus four free trips per year for the employee’s parents, grand-parents and parents-in-law. This applies to most SNCF employees, whether train drivers, engineers, conductors, ticket sellers, computer personnel or office workers, to name some.
Macron’s government, led by prime minister Edouard Philippe, proposes to leave the contracts of current employees unchanged, but to abridge the over-generous terms for new employees. It argues that French rail consumers are paying more and more expensive rates for a gradually diminishing level of quality, and that balance must be restored both by reforming the contract terms, and by opening the French rail network to competition. They point to the success of the Thello rail service that currently operates between Paris and Venice, as an example of the benefits of competition.
Critics of the government protest that its SNCF reforms are the first chink in the armor of protection for France’s public services, which includes the entire civil service, as well as those working in education and health care, which are widely recognized as of exceptional excellent quality.
As the strike now enters its second week, cheminot attitudes sound as if they may be hardening, and there are calls for them to move from the rolling strike strategy to a continuous shut down. However, there is reluctance to do that, for fear of alienating an until-now relatively indulgent public which has suffered the considerable inconveniences of the strike more or less stoically. The attitude of the public is considered important and, until now, it has been more or less evenly divided between those who comprehend and support or tolerate the strike, and those who want better service and are impatient for reform.
There are optimists who believe the strike will not last long, with some predicting it will be over by the end of April. They point to a factor that they believe has changed everything to do with strikes in France: until recently employees who went on strike in France were entitled by law to be paid their full salaries, even while they were on strike. No longer. That privilege was abrogated recently. It is likely that this is what explains the relatively rare strikes seen in France in recent times. Will it change everything with the cheminot? We’ll know soon.