×

French minister talks of rail liberalization delay as strike looms

* Minister urged unions to negotiate after strike call

* Says rail workers will not be paid if they do not work

* Offers prospect of delay to open competition in France

PARIS, March 16 (Reuters) - France's transport minister said on Friday she was ready to negotiate with rail unions preparing to stage a wave of strikes, including on a possible delay to opening up the state-run network to competition.

The four main rail unions on Thursday called for a wave of strikes over three months from April, setting up a confrontation with President Emmanuel Macron and his government that will be fraught with risks for both sides.

Minister Elisabeth Borne described the strike call over the government's plan to revamp the SNCF group before liberalistion of the network from 2020 as irresponsible. However, she told CNews TV: "The government's not looking for a showdown ... There are things we are prepared to discuss."

French unions are weaker and more divided than in 1995, when widespread rail strikes over social welfare reforms paralyzed parts of France and public support for industrial action is less ardent than it once was. But a prolonged strike could still hurt Macron's presidency, still in its first year.

Borne said she was open to negotiation on a range of issues, such as the start date for allowing private operators to compete with state-owned SNCF.

"The start of open competition is something that was decided during a previous presidential mandate and regional leaders want to see happen, but the start dates are up for negotiation."

Borne said this would apply to the Ile de France region that includes Paris and its surrounding area, where rail services carry as much as half of the nationwide daily total of about four million train passengers.

EU liberalization accords are due to end national rail monopoly services from 2020 onwards, but Borne dangled the possibility of a far longer feed-in time before the SNCF faces the full brunt of open competition.

"What will that date be? 2025, 2030, 2033? That's part of what's up for negotiation," she said.

She reiterated the government's readiness to assume all or part of the SNCF's nearly 50 billion euros ($60 billion) of debt but only if the company made sweeping changes that meant it would no longer be loss-making.

A major flashpoint in the reform, billed as the biggest since the nationalization of the railways in the 1930s, is the proposal to abolish the special employment status SNCF railworkers have enjoyed for decades - a job-for-life contract with automatic annual pay rises and a right to retire years before most other French workers.

The strikes are planned to hit two out of every five days over a three-month period, from April 3. That, however, may leave time for enough progress to stave off the walkout. ($1 = 0.8118 euros) (Reporting by Brian Love; editing by Richard Lough and David Stamp)