April 23, 2018 / 8:38 AM / 3 months ago

French strikers press on with attempt to derail SNCF reform

PARIS (Reuters) - Striking French rail workers disrupted train services for the ninth day this month on Monday, turning a deaf ear to the centrist government’s insistence that the state-run SNCF and other neglected public services are in need of reform.

Logos of SNCF railway company are seen on a train locomotive parked at a so-called "train cemetery" inside a marshalling yard in Sotteville-Les-Rouen, near Rouen, France, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The rolling strikes, which coincided with a walkout at flag carrier Air France over wages on Monday, are the sternest challenge yet faced by President Emmanuel Macron, who embarks on a state visit to the United States later in the day.

Parliament last week took the first step in approving the railway reform bill. It includes the gradual phase-out of the SNCF’s passenger rail monopoly, starting with competition on high-speed lines in 2020, and an end to hiring of SNCF staff on more protective job-for-life contracts than in other sectors.

“We have not paid enough attention to some public services for years, or even decades,” Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud told Europe 1 radio.

“Emmanuel Macron was elected because people want things to improve, on the economic, social and unemployment fronts.”

All four major unions are contesting a reform which is the biggest since nationalization of the railways in the late 1930s and seen as a test of Macron’s determination to pursue a far broader raft of reforms during a term that runs to 2022.

SNCF management said around one in three high-speed TGV trains were running and that services were cut to two in five trains on regional connections, as they were during last week’s strike action.

SNCF boss Guillaume Pepy, who backs the shake-up of the heavily indebted company, on Sunday said the strike was slowly losing its momentum, citing a falling number of train drivers taking part in the industrial action.

“Passengers have had enough,” Pepy said on a weekend politics talkshow.

Philippe Martinez, leader of the hard-left CGT union, the most muscular inside the SNCF but whose influence nationwide is waning, accused Pepy of manipulating statistics.

“It’s time to stop playing hardball. We’ve got to sort this out,” he said.

A third strut of the reform will change the SNCF’s corporate structure to a joint-stock company. While the government says it will remain 100 percent state-owned, unions fear that opens the door to privatization, as happened after similar changes at France Telecom, now called Orange.

The SNCF bill will now go to the Senate and the process of parliamentary approval is expected to conclude by early July.

Reporting by Richard Lough

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