WHEN ASKED ABOUT HIS POLITICAL ALLEGIANCE during the 2017 French presidential election campaign, Emmanuel Macron’s oft-repeated answer was that he was “Ni de droite, ni de gauche” (“Neither right wing nor left wing”).
This answer rings decidedly hollow when looking at his proposed reforms of France’s nationalised rail service, the SNCF. These reforms are anti-worker and effectively Thatcherite, paving the way to privatisation and thus provoking wide- ranging strikes that have brought the country’s rail network to a standstill.
The reforms are based on the Spinetta Report, so named for its author Jean-Cyril Spinetta, a former functionary turned businessman and current chair of the Air France-KLM Group. Two of the most contentious reforms are the changing of the legal status of the SNCF - effectively changing it from a nationalised service to a private one owned by the state - and the abolishing of the ‘cheminot’ (railworker) employee status for new employees. These reforms have been carried out with a rationale of getting rid of the SNCF’s sizeable €54bn debt and improving investment in France’s rail network, which has seen high-speed trains receive funding at the expense of smaller lines.
Changing the legal status of the SNCF paves the way to privatisation, as can be observed with the previously state- owned telecommunications service, which became Orange. Orange underwent similar reforms in the 1990s but became a fully private company in 2010. Unlike Orange, however, the rail services are something of a natural monopoly. It is clear where this could lead. As anyone with experience of the British rail service since its privatisation can tell you, it has suffered from chronic under-investment in that time, with rail franchises frequently going bust and under-investment rife.
The “cheminot” status is an additional point of contention. It is considered to be generous: cheminots are guaranteed a pay rise every year; have 28 days holiday; and a generous allowance of tickets to be given out to family members. This has led to some scorn from the French public, including supposed progressives, who see France’s railway workers as spoiled and over-privileged. Railworkers have immensely difficult working conditions - notably unsociable hours and frequent abuse. And we should be fighting to expand this kind of privilege to all, not sneering at those fighting to protect what meagre privileges they have.
This comes in the context of a wider raft of ‘reforms’, which scale back French workers' rights and hand greater power to corporations, bringing France closer to a British model. All is not doom and gloom however. Though Macron has a commanding majority in the French Parliament, he has chosen to unleash his reforms in quite a concentrated way. The French have a strongly established tradition of public protest, with public sectors workers walking out in March.
If enacted, Macron’s reforms will prove bad for rail users and workers alike, with the only people really profiting being those with the means to run private rail companies, to the material detriment of all other stakeholders. France’s striking cheminots are not only striking for themselves, but for the benefit of us all in the face of this privatisation by the back door.