French rail workers are on strike as President Macron vows to reform public sector unions

French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to loosen up rules regarding public sector employment but he is facing strong resistance from unions led by French rail workers who have announced plans for several months of rolling walkouts designed to grind the nation to a halt. Here’s how the Guardian reported the launch of strikes earlier this month:

The first day of the strikes – dubbed “Black Tuesday” – caused large-scale disruption to the country’s 4.5 million rail passengers. Frantic crowds on Paris platforms queued to squeeze themselves on to scarce trains with some passengers falling on to tracks, while railway workers and students marched through major cities.

Over three-quarters of train drivers and almost half of essential rail staff walked off the job across the country. Only one regional train in five and one high-speed TGV train out of eight was running. Commuter lines into Paris were severely affected and international train services were cut, with no trains between France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain and three out of four trains running on the Eurostar service connecting to London.

Currently, rail workers have jobs for life and can retire at age 52 with a full pension and are guaranteed free rail travel for the rest of their lives. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rail service is €47bn in debt. Today, despite the strong opposition from rail unions, France’s National Assembly voted to change that. From Reuters:

France’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday approved the biggest railway shake-up since nationalisation with a bill that will abolish the state monopoly, shrugging off fierce union opposition and rolling strikes.

The approval vote in France’s National Assembly appeared to push one of President Emmanuel Macron’s flagship reforms beyond the point of no return, hours before yet another two-day train strike, the fourth since the start of April…

Opinion polls show a majority of French people are in favour of the reform, although various soundings have also showed voters want the government to take account of union demands.

The French Senate won’t vote on this until May so unions are doing their best to change the dynamic, though I’m not sure stranding them and preventing them from getting to work is a great way to win people over. Unions are claiming that this is the first step toward privatizing the system, something President Macron has denied he intends to do.

The hard left has called Macron a French Margaret Thatcher, accusing him of trying to privatise the rail system by stealth…

Unions and politicians on the left fear that this transformation – even with the state owning 100% of shares – could eventually lead to the rail operator being privatised.

The Independent notes that just 8 percent of French workers are unionized, but those unions tend to strike early and often to protect their benefits. Today, Air France launched its own strike over wages. From France 24:

About 30 percent of Air France flights scheduled on Tuesday are expected to be canceled due to a strike over pay. Crews and ground staff, whose wages have been frozen since 2011, are seeking a 6 percent pay rise. This will mark their eighth day of walkouts since February.

Some 45 percent of long-haul flights will be canceled along with 35 percent of medium-haul flights to and from Paris. According to Air France, the strikes could cost the company upwards of €220 million.

Management has offered a 5% raise over the next three years but the union hasn’t decided whether to accept or reject that offer yet. This clip from two weeks ago shows some of the protests and chaos that has resulted from the strikes.