France in gridlock as rail unions lay down challenge to Macron’s reform

  • The state rail operator SCNF has planned three months of industrial action.
  • The unions say the strikes are to protect France's public sector.
  • The French government says rail reform is needed to address ballooning debt and high rail prices.
People cross railroad tracks at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris on April 3, 2018.
Getty Images | AFP | Christophe Simon
People cross railroad tracks at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris on April 3, 2018.

French rail workers have started months of strike action that is threatening to cripple the country's workforce.

More than three quarters of train drivers and nearly half of rail workers did not show for work Tuesday as French unions took aim at President Emmanuel Macron's proposed reforms.

The state rail operator SCNF has planned three months of industrial action with strikes planned for two days out of five until June 28. France has an estimated 4.5 million train passengers.

The action has severely disrupted services with only one-in-eight high-speed TGV services operating. Regional and intercity services are also reportedly being hit hard while one in every four Eurostar train journeys has been canceled.

A website that measures traffic-jam lengths around Paris said the cumulative tailback reached more than 425 kilometers (264 miles) during the morning rush hour. The average is typically closer to 350 kilometers.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, September 26, 2017.
Ludovic Marin | Pool | Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, September 26, 2017.

SNCF workers receive automatic annual pay rises, early retirement, 28 days of paid annual leave and protection from dismissal. Relatives also get free rail tickets. But the state rail operator currently has a reported 45 billion euros ($55 billion) of debt.

The government, led by Macron, want to reform the rail service and open it up to more competition. European Union rules also dictate that more privatization within the French rail system should be in place by 2023.

French Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne told local media outlet BFM Tuesday that reform in the sector must be carried out. She added that rail workers should understand that SNCF would remain a state company.

"When they (unions) talk about breaking the public service. It's false. When they want to make a link with other protests … You can clearly see that some are trying to politicize the debate," she said.

Separate walkouts are currently taking place among French garbage collectors, a small number of energy workers, as well as staff at airline Air France.

The last major public sector strike in France was in 1995. The then prime minister, Alain Juppe, attempted a wide program of welfare cutbacks but was forced into a climb-down after railway workers downed tools over his plans to end the right to retire at 55.