French rail travel disrupted as rolling strikes continue
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France’s SNCF national rail service relaunched rolling strikes for Sunday and Monday, two days after the government offered to forgive most of the company’s debt if it accepts reforms to make it more competitive.
It is the 13th series of two-day rolling strikes launched by SNCF since early April, wreaking havoc on rail travel across France.
Two out of three high-speed TGV trains were running on Sunday, while one in two regional TER trains were operating. SNCF’s regular network, Intercités, was the hardest hit by the strike, with only two out of five trains in circulation.
Traffic in the Paris area was also disrupted, with an average of one out of two commuter trains running. The RER A and the southern route of the RER B, however, were operating as normal, as was the Paris metro.
The industrial action has been unpopular among the French, with 56 percent saying they oppose the strike, and 64 percent saying they don’t want the government to give into railway workers’ demands, according to the latest Ifop poll published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday.
On Friday, the government sought to end the strike by saying it would forgive most of SNCF’s debt if plans to make the operator more cost-effective were implemented.
If the offer is rejected and the strike continues, it will underscore the deep resentment that persists among more left-wing unions against President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious agenda.
The 40-year-old president has eased labour protections since taking office a year ago. He has also scrapped a wealth tax, saying the move was needed to spur growth, earning the moniker “president of the rich”.
Laying out the government’s offer, Philippe said on Friday the state would absorb €35 billion of the SNCF’s total €47 billion ($55 billion) debt, which is mostly generated by investment in the much-admired TGV high-speed train network.
“This will relieve the SNCF of most of its debt and give it the financial room for manoeuvre it needs for the future,” the prime minister said.
It involves wiping €25 billion from SNCF books in 2020 and another €10 billion in 2022. That would ease the burden on the railways, but only by shifting it to an area of state liabilities that still has to be footed by the taxpayer.
The offer goes some way towards the demands of more moderate unions involved in a strike that has reduced trains services by about 50 percent for much of the past two months.
The moderates, primarily the CFDT and Unsa unions, welcomed the concession, saying it showed it was worth negotiating.
The CGT, another influential union but one which is opposed to EU-wide liberalisation in principle, said it saw no reason to call off a strike.
“The conflict goes on,” said CGT rail union boss Laurent Brun.
The reform, the biggest since the railways were nationalised in 1937, seeks to reduce costs and end hiring of rail staff – currently 150,000 – on more protective contracts than other sectors.
An adviser to Macron said on Friday that taking on the SNCF debt, which is bigger than France’s annual defence budget, would raise public sector debt but not undo a commitment to keep the deficit within the EU-agreed ceiling of 3 percent of GDP.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)