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French rail workers vote overwhelmingly against government reforms

Jean-Sebastien Evrard, AFP | An employee of France's national state-owned railway company (SNCF) wears a pin reading "on strike" on May 25, 2016

Workers at France’s state-owned SNCF rail company on Wednesday resoundingly rejected President Emmanuel Macron’s planned overhaul of the railways in an internal ballot organised by labour unions.

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Macron’s government wants to create a leaner, more efficient public railway company before the monopoly in domestic passenger rail is opened to competition in line with European Union rules, as has happened in countries such as neighbouring Germany.

The unions, which called the vote days after Air France employees forced the resignation of Air France-KLM’s chief executive, hope it will inject fresh energy into rolling strikes and weaken the government’s negotiating hand.

“This vote totally discredits the SNCF management,” Laurent Brun, head of the CGT’s rail division, told a news conference.  “It would be a mistake to ignore this warning.”

The government has dismissed the ballot as a petition with no legal significance.

The CGT’s Brun said 95 percent of those who voted rejected the reform. In all, some 90,000 of 150,000 SNCF employees voted, he added.

The strikes have brought disruption but not paralysed the transport network. So far, there has been no sign from Macron that he will back down on the biggest and most disputed reform so far in his one-year-old presidency.

Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne signalled there would be no turning back. “I don’t think it was very responsible of the unions to have people believe the reform might not happen,” she told Europe 1 radio before the result was announced.

SNCF’s state-appointed boss, Guillaume Pepy, backs the reforms and says the railworkers’ strike could cost the SNCF 350-400 million euros.

Debt burden

On Friday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will meet with the unions and respond to proposed amendments to the draft bill that is with the Senate.

Macron has already stared down the unions over labour law reforms. Backing down over the SNCF would raise questions over his ability to deliver a raft of other social and economic reforms that he argues are vital to modernise France.

The proposed legislation will gradually end the SNCF’s monopoly of passenger train services in France, and with it the more protective job-for-life contracts that were customary for most of the workforce.

The lower house of parliament, where Macron’s party dominates, has already approved the draft law and the upper chamber Senate is due to vote on it in early June.

Polls show that two-thirds of voters back a shake-up of the railways, which many users say have suffered from debt-funded investment in the much-admired high-speed TGV network at the expense of a far bigger secondary rail network.

The government plans to absorb about 35 billion euros ($41.20 billion) out of the SNCF’s total 47 billion euro debt burden, French business daily Les Echos reported on Monday.  A government spokesman declined to comment.

(REUTERS)

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