French President’s Next Target: The Railroads. Strikes Loom.

French President’s Next Target: The Railroads. Strikes Loom.

Employees of the French rail operator SNCF working on the tracks near the Gare de l’Est train station in Paris. CreditJoel Saget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
PARIS — The soaring 19th century train stations that grace French cities are an iconic image of the nation. Even France’s vaunted high-speed TGV is more than a train; it is a symbol of French planning and ambition, a riposte to an American vision of individualism embodied in the automobile.

But if France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, has made one thing clear, it is that he is not afraid to shake up France and take on its venerable institutions.

Now it is the turn of the heavily subsidized and deeply indebted French rail system.

Mr. Macron says he wants to erase the railway workers’ special status, which gives them more generous benefits than almost any other workers, including a guarantee of early retirement.

In doing so, he has set himself a new and formidable challenge in his expanding campaign to reshape France’s society and economy, which started last year with a law that made it easier for private companies to hire and fire workers, a near revolution for France.

But the railway workers are a public-sector work force, one of the most powerful in the country, with a chokehold on as many as five million riders daily. When they go on strike, the whole country feels it.Most of the rail unions have already pledged to join a strike by public-sector employees planned for Thursday to resist Mr. Macron’s proposals, which could be pushed through Parliament using a special procedure that avoids debate on the specifics.

The rail workers then plan weeks of strikes starting in April that will be staged on a rolling basis — a two-day strike every three days.

A map of former railway lines in the station hall of Dinan, in western France.CreditDamien Meyer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Macron said in a recent exchange with a rail worker that he would not “break everything” but that “the world is not the way it was before” and that the state-owned rail company, SNCF, and its employees “had to adapt,” like other French workers.

French rail workers’ current, ample benefits — including in some cases, the option of retiring at 52 — date to the first half of the 20th century, when many railway jobs involved hard, physical labor such as shoveling coal and clearing the rails of snow.

What Mr. Macron proposes in the name of containing costs and improving service is forcing one of the country’s last, but still powerful state-owned industries to treat its workers more like private-sector employees.

Others have tried to do so before, and failed spectacularly.

The last time a politician tried to make wholesale changes in the rail workers’ benefits was in 1995, when a center-right government under Alain Juppé, then the prime minister, sought cost savings. In response the rail unions went on strike and, after three weeks, Mr. Juppé had to withdraw his proposals.

Today, with Mr. Macron having already reduced private workers’ benefits, it may be more difficult for the railway employees to find sympathy from their fellow workers.

It is also not clear that the planned strikes will help the rail workers’ cause since many riders already feel frustrated by interruptions in service caused by breakdowns.

Mr. Macron has pledged to follow the railway plan with an overhaul of the unemployment system later in the year. Next year he intends to take on the French pension system.

His practical reason for making the rail overhaul now is a European Union requirement that all members open their national train systems to competition by 2019.

Passengers waiting for their train to depart from the station in Le Tréport, northwestern France. The railway line connecting Le Tréport to Abbeville is scheduled to be taken out of service.CreditCharly Triballeau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Macron has seized on the deadline to push for a broader overhaul that, for new hires, would end advantages like guaranteed jobs, automatic pay raises and generous social security benefits.

Other benefits, such as deeply discounted trips for workers and their families, could remain in place.

The railway unions are staunchly opposed to the Macron plan. Philippe Martinez, the head of the C.G.T. union, the largest among rail workers, bristled at what he perceived as critical comments from the government about the rail workers’ benefits and the description of them as employees with special “privileges.”

“Is it a privilege to work night shifts and weekends?” Mr. Martinez asked rhetorically.

The government is intent on “picking a fight,” he said last week after meeting with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.

Unions also argue that erasing the special status for new employees will end the payments that fund all railway workers’ retirement plans.

Their fear, as well as that of many on the left, is that the government’s next step will be to privatize the system, much as Britain has done with largely negative consequences: higher prices, frequent delays and periodic train cancellations.

Mr. Philippe, the prime minister, said the government had no intention of privatizing the rail system. But he and others say that the state-owned rail company must be updated if it is to hold its own with the coming competition from private companies.

For Mr. Macron changing the employment terms for railway workers appears to be part of a larger crusade to push French workers into the 21st century.

The train station at Quesnoy-le-Montant, in northwestern France. A lack of investment and expensive high-speed lines have drained money from local and regional commuter lines.CreditCharly Triballeau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“There is a symbolic dimension to the reforms and an economic dimension,” said Yves Crozet, an economics professor at the University of Lyon, who has studied transportation systems.

The symbolic, he said, has much to do with Mr. Macron’s ambition to remake the French labor market and show that he can do what previous politicians have been unable to: break the grip of the unions, which for decades have stymied efforts to control costs and reduce jobs.

“Mr. Macron wins if he resists the strikes,” Mr. Crozet said.

The economic dimension has to do with the far more challenging project of reducing the cost to the government of public transportation, while maintaining its quality.

Although the French train system remains in the top tier of European railways, its rating has dropped to seventh, according to the most recent Boston Consulting Group report that evaluates and compares European railways.

The French rail system is both heavily subsidized and deeply in debt, to the tune of 55 billion euros, or about $68 billion. About two-thirds of the debt is attributable to the construction of the high-speed lines or TGV, which were extremely expensive to build, and have drained money from more prosaic commuter lines.

The situation is particularly bad for those living in the greater Paris suburbs and surrounding areas, known as the Ile de France, who use trains to get to work.

“We know there needs to be more investment in the Ile de France,” said Joel Hazan, a partner in the Paris office of the Boston Consulting Group and one of the authors of the report. He added that there needed to be more investment overall.

Yet it is far from clear that changing rail workers’ benefits will make much difference in the near term, analysts say.

A staff member of the French rail company SNCF waiting to give the departure signal to a high-speed TGV train at the Gare de l’Est station in Paris. CreditLudovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Improved financial performance for the rail company suggested that efforts to tighten operations even without getting rid of the workers’ special benefits were having some impact.

Historians and economists who study the system say neither the government nor the unions are altogether right about whether the rail workers still deserve special treatment.

“One has to look at the new working conditions, the routines have been upended by new techniques, you have to start from scratch,” said George Ribeill, a historian and sociologist who used to be director of research at l’École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées.

If the reforms go through with little protest from the French, as appears likely, it will be a signal of France’s changing priorities.

Until the 1970s, but especially in earlier eras, many rail workers came from the villages and small towns across France, creating a deep network of support for the railways and the workers.

Increasing urbanization changed that, and the political support faded for a vast train network that reached into every corner of the land. As that sense dulled so did the sense that the French train system had a special place in the country’s cultural imagination.

Certainly Mr. Macron, who is the grandson of a rail worker, made clear in his brief conversation with a railway worker who approached him with questions about the proposal that any romance the trains held was long gone. “You do not have the same work rhythm as my grandfather,” he said.

The changes, he said, “will be better for you.”

Aurelien Breeden and Assia Labbas contributed reporting.

Strikes in France disrupt rail, air service in opening shot against Macron’s labor plans
By James McAuley March 22 at 10:31 AM

People take part in a demonstration in Paris as part of a nationwide day of protest against French president multi-front reform drive. (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS — Railway workers and air traffic controllers led strikes across France on Thursday, opening a bitter showdown over labor overhauls sought by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The strikes — which disrupted travel across the country — signal a critical test for Macron as his government seeks to challenge France’s tightly controlled public-sector labor markets in attempts to stimulate a stagnant economy.

Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker, faced only minimal resistance to the first wave of workplace changes last fall, and unemployment figures have already begun to drop.

But France’s powerful public sector, which employs more than 5 million people, is putting its foot down against the next stage: proposals to cut 120,000 public-sector jobs, hire more contract workers and slash budgets across the board.

Rail workers planned to go for the jugular with a new type of “rolling” protest: a two-day strike every three days, a major upheaval to a transport system that handles millions of passengers every day.

Many high-speed trains — including the renowned high-speed TGV service — were canceled between Paris and other French cities in Thursday’s opening salvo. Commuter train service within the capital was also suspended.

Meanwhile, the Eurostar, connecting Paris with London, canceled some runs through the English Channel tunnel, and many short-haul flights at the Paris-area airports of Orly, Beauvais and Charles de Gaulle were grounded.

An employee of the French stat- owned railway company SNCF walks by empty platforms at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris. (Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)
Teachers and other workers also joined the strike.

Elisabeth Borne, Macron’s transport minister, defended the labor plans as crucial to ensure the strength and survival of France’s state-owned railway company.

“This is a necessary, indispensable reform,” Borne said, appearing on France’s BFM TV on Thursday. “My hope is not a test of strength; my hope is for negotiations.”

So far, Macron has been spared the kind of devastating strikes that have unraveled previous French governments.

For his earlier, extensive labor revisions, Macron and allies reached out to union leaders during a long process of dialogue. The changes, which included broader rules to hire and fire employees, sailed through with relatively little outcry.

The public-sector plans — which still need parliamentary approval — may prove to be a different story.

Macron seeks to forge ahead with these changes without the same level of calculated exchange with labor leaders.

[Opinion: France is now proving ground for Europe’s labor battles]

On a deeper level, these new changes — particularly with regard to the railways — strike at the heart of a system that has long been a model of the French state’s collective commitments, both to transport and to those who run it.

Railway workers have long enjoyed expansive benefits, including generous pensions and, for some employees, the option of retirement at age 52, a full decade before the official retirement age of 62.

These benefits stem from an era when the job entailed intense manual labor — a time Macron has said is long gone.

“How old are you?” the young president responded to a railway worker at an agricultural fair last month, when asked about the proposals.

“You do not have the same work rhythm as my grandfather, who was a railway man,” Macron added. Macron’s grandfather, André Macron, was an employee of France’s state-owned railway company in the northeastern Somme region.

Students joined the demonstrations in Paris. (Yoan Valat/European Pressphoto Agency)
Opinion polls suggest most French voters agree with Macron’s proposals, but the looming transport strikes have yet to take their full toll. Regardless of social station, few French citizens will be unaffected by the planned strikes.

In the past, governments have quickly backed down.

In 1995, the center-right government of Alain Juppé withdrew proposals to overhaul railway pensions after a strike brought the country to a standstill.

Union leaders are threatening much the same this year, said Jean-Marc Canon, secretary general of UGFF-CGT, a large public-sector union.

There is also symbolism at work. Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of a 1968 student uprising that grew into the largest public protest in modern French history.

“Either they listen to us and it will have been just a warning shot, or they don’t listen to us and then, let me tell you that public-sector workers are very mobilized,” Canon said Thursday, speaking on French radio.