May 7, 2018 / 8:10 AM / 14 days ago

French PM meets unions to try to end rail strike

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s prime minister told labour union leaders on Monday that he expected the debt-ridden SNCF rail company to reach financial breakeven by 2022 and, according to one union boss, promised to make announcements on the issue before the end of May.

French CGT labour union leader Philippe Martinez (L) arrives for a meeting with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France, May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Seeking to end a strike that has crippled rail services for much of the past month, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met the main protagonists one at a time in a bid to revive discussions the unions halted last month.

SNCF’s 46 billion euros (40.64 billion pounds) of debt is one of the main flashpoints in a showdown prompted by an SNCF shake-up aimed at ending its domestic passenger rail monopoly and ending the hiring of rail staff on more protective contracts than other sectors.

Philippe, who seemingly stopped short of concrete proposals, promised announcements on debt management between now and the end of May, said Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union.

The union leaders all said industrial action was set to continue, but Berger said his union was also open to negotiation if the government proved willing in the weeks ahead, before the law on the SNCF reform goes to the Senate on May 29.

French CGT labour union leader Philippe Martinez (L) arrives for a meeting with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France, May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The reform, the biggest since railway nationalisation in the 1930s, has turned into a test of President Emmanuel Macron’s determination to pursue a raft of economic reforms as his first of five years in power comes to an end.

Unions have programmed strikes two days out of every five up to the end of June, and disruption since rolling strikes began on April 3 remains significant even if it has waned somewhat since the early days.

The CFDT and the UNSA unions both said they were keeping an open mind after Monday’s meetings, suggesting the government may be able to break the united union front in the coming weeks.

The more hardline unions, chiefly the CGT and also Sud Rail, showed no sign of changing tune.

CGT leader Philippe Martinez and other representatives of that union, which opposes the principle of liberalisation, said after meeting Philippe that the strike would go on and that nothing had changed as far as they saw it.

Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Simon Carraud; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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