National Rail Strike Against Privatization Strands French and Tests Their President

National Rail Strike Against Privatization Strands French and Tests Their President
Rail Strike Strands French and Tests Their President

Passengers waited for a train at the main station in Marseille, in southern France, on Wednesday.CreditClaude Paris/Associated Press

PARIS — Now entering its second week, the national railway strike here has stranded thousands and exasperated millions more. It has brought on even more stress for high school students trying to reach their nationwide graduation test sites; upended business trips, hospital visits, vacations and daily commutes; and cost the state rail system upward of $250 million (about 184.2 million euros).

It is also becoming a moment of truth for the beleaguered government of President François Hollande.

Faced with a stagnant economy; a vast, underfunded system of social-welfare benefits; and deep unpopularity, Mr. Hollande is trying to persuade his Socialist Party to embrace a more centrist path that includes tax and spending cuts and more market competition. The main opposition is coming from his base on the left, especially labor unions.
The rail strike is seen as a crucial test of Mr. Hollande’s willingness to hang tough in the face of criticism from that opposition and the ensuing strains in his party. Two major unions are striking in an effort to block a planned restructuring of the national rail system, a change intended to help prepare for further competition with private and foreign train services, in accordance with European Union directives.

Given the disruption caused by the strike, there is not a great deal of public support for it, especially in light of the generous welfare benefits and labor safeguards that rail workers receive. But French law affords broad legal protections to striking workers, and the government has been unable to persuade the unions to back down.

On Wednesday, train service was still cut by about half nationwide, with 12 percent of workers on strike, according to the S.N.C.F., the national rail operator. That was down from a high of nearly 28 percent last week, but the two unions leading the strike, the CGT and SUD-Rail, said it would continue Thursday. On Wednesday afternoon at the Gare de Lyon station in Paris, Thierry Clergue, 49, awaited a train home to Montpellier after an earlier train was canceled.

“It’s France, and it’s madness — everyone’s resigned to it,” Mr. Clergue said. French unions “don’t want to shift,” he said, “but the world is shifting.”

The proposed overhaul, which is being debated in the lower house of Parliament this week, would combine the S.N.C.F. with the R.F.F., the state administration that oversees the rail network infrastructure, under a newly formed state rail parent company, to be called the S.N.C.F.

The unions say the overhaul is little more than cosmetic and is likely to increase administrative waste, not reduce it, as the government contends. In an unusual convergence of opinion, some lawmakers on the right as well as defectors from Mr. Hollande’s leftist parliamentary majority agree. Though politicians from across the political spectrum have expressed reservations about the restructuring plan, only members of the radical left have backed the strike.

But union leaders have also asserted that the government is secretly planning to privatize the rail system, and they fear a potential disruption to the benefits that railway workers are currently guaranteed by law, including full retirement pensions for drivers as young as 50 and conductors and other workers as young as 55. The government has called those worries unfounded.

Despite unrest among Socialist Party lawmakers, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the most prominent of the party’s centrists, has pledged to push the legislation through Parliament. The work stoppage “makes no sense with the current conditions of dialogue that exist, and with respect to a bill that would reform, modernize the S.N.C.F., and which protects the statutes of rail workers,” Mr. Valls said.

If there is any agreement between the strikers and everyone else, it is that the system could benefit from some adjustments. Defenders of the status quo — in which the S.N.C.F. handles the trains while the R.F.F. handles the rails — are few. S.N.C.F. administrators recently discovered that, after receiving faulty measurements from R.F.F., the company spent €3 billion on new trains that were too wide for about 15 percent of France’s rail stations.

Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.