The French Case: Macron vs. Railway Unions

Emmanuel Macron is confronted with the strongest social mobilisations in France since his election. Even though these mobilisations are heterogeneous and gather a large variety of struggles, they were originally triggered by Macron’s rail reform which embodies the President’s harsh neoliberal agenda.

On March 14, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the main features of the rail reform to come. A week later, the rail workers and the civil servants demonstrated together nationwide1 and a few days later, as the rolling strikes called by the railway unions were beginning, the student’s mobilisation against the implementation of restrictive admissions procedures in the universities really kicked off.2

The social battle is now in full swing and the government is using every means at his disposal to extinguish the flames of contestation, including riot police raids in universities for evicting student protesters.3 While Macron and his government claim that they won’t give an inch and refuse any compromise with the unions, the growing determination of the various sectors mobilisations is growing even stronger.4 The rolling strikes in the railway are planned to last at least until the end of June, the student movements is the strongest ever seen of the last decade and the public opinion is deeply divided with no clear winner. In a nutshell, the struggle is raging and after a successful and massive Labour day, the next shows of force in order to stop the neoliberal offensive will take place on 3 May with a nationwide education demonstration and on 5 May for a cross-sector demonstration in Paris called by a critical philosopher (Frédéric Lordon) and a member of parliament (François Ruffin).

However the backbone of the current social mobilisations was, is and will most doubtfully remain the rolling strikes of the railway workers. Indeed their mobilisation is the strongest since 1995 and considered as historical by many commentators and scholars.5 Such appreciation is due to the intensity of the mobilisation (three months of rolling strikes combined with demonstrations and gatherings) but also the symbolic significance of the struggle. What is at stake is no more, no less the ability of this government to defeat the most combative sector of France’s social movement and this in order to prepare the next reforms forming Macron’s neoliberal agenda (pension system, public servants’ status). This agenda aims at reshaping the socio-economic features of the French society into a neoliberal hell (or paradise, depends on the perspective) and as such, deeply modify the social structures. The government’s changes to the university admission process are part of this process as the social selection induced by this reform will prevent a large part of the lower social classes’ daughters and sons to access to university and therefore reinforce the perpetration of inequalities’ reproduction from one generation to another. The railway unions and the workers are profoundly conscious of the stakes of this struggle and this is why they chose a broad framing of the contestation as a fight for or against public services. Nevertheless in this process, a particular attention shall be payed to the details of the rail reform in order to grasp why it constitutes the spearhead of Macron’s shock doctrine.

One of the pieces of the reform put forward by the government is the abolition of the railway workers’ special employment status for the new rail staff. This status applies to a large part of the SNCF’s employees, about 131 000 people among the 147 000 employees of the French National Railway Corporation (SNCF). This status provides the railway workers with an earlier benefits retirement age than the rest of the working population (52 for the conductors and 57 for the other railway personnel against 62 years old) and the ban of layoff for economic reasons. The government presents this status as a reminiscent archaism providing a small fraction of the working population with privileges which are in contradiction with the requirements of a modern and globalized French economy.6 By targeting the status of railway workers, Macron is pursuing his objective of dismantling job security protections, as he did last fall with his Labour reform.7 The declared objective of this labour deregulation is to boost job growth, through the facilitation of layoffs and the degradation of pay rates and work conditions. The abandonment of this special status for the new hiring will pave the way for the dismantling of the public servants status in the public reform to come. The government’s main options for reform are to cut the number of public workers by 120 000 over five years through voluntary redundancies, introduce merit-based pay and rely more on contract workers. The abolition of the railway workers’ status must be understood in the framework of a general deregulation of labour and the destruction of every job security protection in order to generalize flexibility and its corollary, precariousness.

Nevertheless the dismantling of these employment protections is a smoke screen hiding the core of the reform which lies in the transformation of the SNCF (a public company since its foundation in 1937) into a publicly financed corporation. The modification of the SNCF’s legal status will lay the legal framework for future privatisation of the national publicly owned rail system and is widely considered as the first phase of a full-scale privatisation of the SNCF. The move to a publicly financed corporation was applied a few years ago to France Télécom, Gaz de France and La Poste (the postal service) and the first two have been fully privatised. At the minimum, the change of the corporate structure into a joint-stock company will introduce private sector’s management in the public service, mainly the quest for profitability in every activity which might lead in the medium term to the abandonment of the non-profitable train lines, the increase of the working rhythm and pressures on the employees to strengthen productivity. In La Poste the introduction of this management resulted in the commodification of all personal assistance services and a serious deterioration of the services provided, while in France Telecom the management of the staff lead to many burn-out and depressions and even several suicides of employees. Even if, according to Macron and Philippe’s statements, the SNCF is not privatised and the state owns 100% of shares, there will be a radical change in the management and the disappearance of the public service’s social practices. In addition, there are no guarantee at all that the privatisation will not take place in the coming years and decades.

The fear of a looming but hidden privatisation is linked to the third main feature of the reform, which is the precise schedule of the opening to competition of the French railway market. The opening to competition is one of the main justifications of the advocates of the privatisation, as competition will force the SNCF to align its standards on the private sector in order to maintain price competitiveness. The reform, if adopted, will organise a gradual phase-out of the SNCF’s passenger rail monopoly, starting with competition on high-speed lines in 2020. The regional train lines will follow until 2023, except for the Ile de France region which will have until 2033 due to the specificities of France’s most populated region. The obligation for every public administration to organise call for bidders for any public market related to the rail industry will be fully enforced by 2033. In addition to the risk of a privatisation in the medium term in the wake of the completion of the opening to competition, such an opening will most probably disorganise the rail services, increase the prices of the tickets and led to the deterioration of the infrastructures and the closure of non-profitable train lines. Such consequences are not fantasises but based on the observation of the railway industry in several European countries after the opening to competition was completed. This was the case in the United Kingdom which was the laboratory where for experimenting neoliberal reforms in the last three decades. The opening to competition and the privatisation in the 1990s led the British rail transport to become a disaster8 to such an extent that a large majority of British people are in favour of its renationalisation9. The comparison with other countries in Europe where opening to competition, deregulation and privatisation have been implemented brings us to look at the origin of these processes: the European Union’s fourth railway package.

The involvement of the EU in the railway industry started in the end of the 1990s with a White Paper advocating for liberalising the rail sector and introducing market-based logics. In 2001 a first package of European directives were adopted by the European Council imposed the organisational and accounting separation of the rail infrastructures form the rail companies. This led to disorganisation and additional charges for the maintenance of the railway lines that caused a lack of investment in the infrastructure and extra charges for the rail companies due to rail tolls. The second package (2004) intensified the opening to competition of the rail freight while the third (2007) extended the opening to competition to the international passenger railways which took effect only in 2010, in order to give some time for the public railway companies to be prepared for competition. These reforms turned out to be ineffective and very costly: they raised the prices of the tickets, the number of accidents increased while the freight railway continued its decline. Regardless of any evaluation of the previous changes to rail transport regulation, the European Commission persisted with its ideological goal of completing the liberalisation of the rail and produced a fourth railway package which was voted by the European Parliament in December 2016.10 The technical aspect of this aims at systematise the interoperability of the rail system among the whole EU, unify safety standards and authorisation for rolling stocks. On the other hand, the political aspect consists in one single objective: the opening to competition of the market for domestic passenger transport services by rail. The fourth railway package will take effect in December 2018 and therefore the opening to competition has to take place by the end of 2020. In other words, France has to comply with this set of European directives and modify its legislation for integrating these rules in 2018 and enforce them before 2020. Such a legal obligation tends to confirm the thesis according to which the EU is responsible for all neoliberal evils among Europe. The spectrum of the EU competition dogma EU is widely seen, among the opponents, as the true origin of Macron’s rail reform. The implementation of the fourth railway package during Macron’s five years term was inevitable unless the French government was ready to engage a harsh power struggle against the EU’s directives, which is a very unlikely possibility given Macron’s neoliberal stances.

Even though the role of the fourth railway package in the current reform is unquestionable, Macron and his government elaborated a reform which goes far beyond the requirements of the fourth railway package. Indeed, the abolition of the railway workers’ status and the change of the corporate structure are not included in the EU’s liberalisation plan. Their inclusion in the draft bill was justified by the necessity to adapt the SNCF in anticipation of the competition in the railway industry but also by the SNCF’s debt which amounts to 46.6 billion euros. The blackmail rhetoric about the debt is a classic argument of the neoliberals for imposing their pre-conceived agenda, and in this case again it proved its inaccuracy. The cost of the special employment conditions of the rail workers is negligible in comparison of the SNCF’s revenues while the cost of the rail tolls payed to the company dedicated to the management of the rail infrastructure is pretty substantial. The role of the fourth railway package is an inspiratory role for a neoliberal reform which needs to be understood in a broader framework, which is Macron’s agenda. This neoliberal agenda is obviously aligned ideologically with the one of the Commission but, if possible, is even more intense and violent as Macron aims at reshaping completely France’s economy and social structures in five years through the succession of neoliberal reforms in every field.

If the railway reform is adopted, the symbolic consequences will be huge as Macron, the public opinion and the social movement know its adoption will mean the defeat of a central sector in the resistance against neoliberalism (the railway workers’ unions), hence constituting a pivotal moment just as the miner’s strike against Thatcher. The rail reform draft bill was approved by the National Assembly on 17 April; the lower house of parliament did not significantly modify the text.11 A second vote will take place in the upper house of parliament, the Senate, in the end of May, before a final vote in the National Assembly in mid-June, thus finalising the process of parliamentary approval. The power struggle started in mid-March and will not stop until the end of June; for the time being neither Macron and his parliamentary majority nor the social movement show signs of fatigue. In this regard, the month of May will be crucial and not only because of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of 68.


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