France braces for crippling three-month rail strike

Christophe Simon, AFP file picture | People stand at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris during a nationwide walk-out against the government’s reform drive, on March 22, 2018

As of Easter Monday, people travelling on French trains will start feeling the effects of a crippling three-month rolling strike action. France’s transport minister calls it “unjustified” and "incomprehensible”.


In an unprecedented move, thousands of French rail workers, known as “cheminots”, will this week go on strike for two out of every five days until the end of June, crippling French train traffic for a total of 36 days. The strike is a response to a government proposal to reform the national railway operator, SNCF, which threatens to end many of the benefits that cheminots have enjoyed until now, including job-for-life guarantees and early retirement schemes.

The strike officially starts on April 3 but SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy said that the anticipated travel chaos is set to kick in on Monday evening – in the midst of people returning from the Easter holidays.

"There will be very few trains from the evening of April 2 to the morning of April 5," he told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday, estimating that just "one train in five or one in eight" will run.

Although French law stipulates that a minimum service must be made available during strike actions, some train lines are likely to be closed altogether.

On Sunday, the SNCF published a list of the train lines affected by the first of the many rolling strike actions.


SNCF's debt mountain

The government says the only option for SNCF is reform, arguing that the massive €46.6 billion debt that the operator has racked up just isn’t manageable under current conditions - and that the cheminot benefits only add on to it. It also wants the country’s rail services to improve across the board, offering travellers a higher-quality travel experience, and has therefore proposed opening up the country’s train services for competition.

France’s Transport Minister Elisabeth Born told French daily Le Parisien on Sunday that she “deplored” the looming strike action.

“We live in a changing world. The SNCF needs to change too in order to offer better services which is something that the French expect,” she said

“The French don’t feel like going through three months of mess that can’t be justified.”

The government is planning to force through the reforms via parliamentary decrees in a bid to avoid lawmakers to vote on them.

Why the special status?

Cheminots’ special employment status is a prickly issue in France and dates back to the early 1920s. Traditionally seen as a low-salary job with bad working conditions due to its frequent travel and uncomfortable working hours, the status was created by rail companies to try to attract and retain staff.

When the French railways came under state control in 1937, the government kept the cheminots’ special status, which also includes the right to extra vacation days and free, or heavily reduced, travel for family members.

The rail workers’ advantageous retirement scheme has long been a costly stye in the eye for the government, however. Several French administrations have tried to hike the retirement age, only to meet with paralysing strikes as a result. Although the government has succeeded in raising it a little over the years, the current system allows train drivers to retire at the age of 52, at least 10 years earlier than the average French retirement age.

In an opinion poll conducted by Ifop for JDD and published on Sunday, 46 percent of the French said they thought the strike was justified, while 53 percent found it unjustified.

SNCF employs a total of 146,000 cheminots across France.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning