The Guardian view on France’s transport strikes: make or break for Macron | Editorial | Opinion
The French president was always going to face a battle to reform the state railways. That moment has now come – and it is pivotal for his term in office
Mr Macron won a number of skirmishes last year over labour market reforms and public sector jobs. Now and over the coming months, he faces a full-on battle with the rail unions over plans to reform the state-owned SNCF. The president is taking his stand on an SNCF reform package based on February’s report by the former head of Air France, Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Under this plan, the French government would help to bail out the SNCF’s almost €50bn debt in return for opening up French rail markets and scrapping generous pay, retirement and benefit terms for new SNCF employees. The unions are fighting more than anything to preserve their enviable existing deal; but they are casting the dispute as an attack on unions in general and a defence of state ownership against privatisation (an aim the government has disavowed). Both sides know that French voters treasure their welfare state.
France’s international reputation as a bulwark of unionisation can be misleading. Only 11% of French workers are in unions, a smaller proportion than in the UK. The largest union, the CFDT, is much less militant than the left-led, and historically pro-Communist CGT, which is calling the rail strikes that began this week. But the strength and militancy of the rail workers is beyond question, and this confrontation is not just real but emblematic. There has not been a strike-free year on the SNCF since 1959. In 1995, the rail workers were decisive in killing off Jacques Chirac’s welfare reforms, while in 2010 they helped water down Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to raise the pension age. The stakes for Mr Macron are very high.
Mr Macron is calculating that the combination of his 2017 election win, the parliamentary election success of his La République en Marche party and the readiness of French public opinion to embrace reform will allow him to do in 2018 what his predecessors failed to do in 1995 and 2010. He has already made some concessions in his plans – reprieving loss-making rural rail lines that the Spinetta report has earmarked for closure, for example. He is putting his prime minister and his transport minister out front to deal with the day-by-day arguments. But the industrial battle could be a close-run thing.
Mr Macron only won a quarter of the vote for his reform programme in last year’s first round, and only got his second-round majority because the choice was between him and Marine Le Pen. Public opinion has moved against Mr Macron recently. His personal ratings have slipped beneath 50%, while public support for his SNCF reform has narrowed from 16 points in mid-March to seven points now. The strikers believe momentum is on their side – even making comparisons with the May 1968 uprising. Other disputes – including at Air France and the Carrefour supermarket chain – are taking place alongside the SNCF strikes, so a weak parallel with 1968 is there, providing one doesn’t look too carefully. At this stage, though, this is not a festival of the oppressed.
Some will see the SNCF conflict as the mirror image of the clear mood across the Channel in favour of renationalisation of the UK railways. The costs and disputes in British rail privatisation are often invoked as a horror story in France; Mr Macron has been compared to Margaret Thatcher. 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.