Prime Minister’s SNCF reforms provoke strike threats

The Prime Minister has proposed a series of reforms on national railway SNCF, including a controversial change in the status of staff, prompting threats by rail unions of a “month-long strike”.

27 February 2018
By Connexion journalist

Edouard Philippe announced the reforms after denouncing the current state of SNCF, but his suggestions have already been criticised by the SNCF unions CGT, Unsa, Sud and CFDT, who have united to discuss their response.

Amid the controversy, Mr Philippe is clear that reform is needed.

In a speech this week, he said: “The situation is alarming, not to say untenable. The French, whether they take the train or not, are paying more and more for a public service that is working less and less well. It is time to begin the reforms that all French people know are necessary.”

Yet, union CGT-Cheminots has already stated that it would be ready to impose “a month of strikes” to “make the government bend [to our wishes]”, said general secretary Laurent Brun, today.

He added: “We are surely beginning one of the most important social movements in the history of the SNCF.”

Mr Philippe’s announcement comes following a report on the state of SNCF by former CEO of Air France-KLM, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, but the prime minister has not taken all of Mr Spinetta’s recommendations on board.

His controversial reform suggestions are as follows:


A limited company, but no privatisation

Mr Philippe has said that his preferred option would be to turn SNCF into a national public limited company, rather than go down the private company route.

This decision goes against the Spinetta report, which recommended the latter option, and Mr Philippe is adamant that this “is not preparing SNCF for privatisation”.

“SNCF is a public group that offers a public service. It is part of the French heritage, and it will stay that way,” he said.

The end of “statut de cheminot” recruitment

Arguably the most controversial reform, Mr Philippe said that he would put an end to the so-called “statut de cheminot” of SNCF employees.

This status, which accounts for around 90% of current SNCF staff - around 140,000 workers - effectively protects them from being fired, and protects their “civil servant” status.

It allows only three reasons for someone to lose their job: resignation, retirement, or being written off for health reasons or equivalent issues, and also guarantees employment until around 50-55 years of age.

While all current staff contracts will be allowed to remain as they are, Mr Philippe would change the system for any future recruitment.

He said: “For new generations and apprentices, all those who want a job with SNCF, we say that they will benefit from the working conditions for all the French people; the Code du Travail.”

Didier Aubert, of the CFDT, hit back at this particular reform, saying: “This announcement has been seen as a real injustice and a provocation. It is a very provocative measure.”

He added: “For the SNCF’s 80th birthday present, [we] have been told that it is responsible for all of the railway’s woes.”

No closure of small train lines

The prime minister has vowed that the government will not touch “the small lines”, going against the Spinetta recommendation to close “unsustainable” tracks.

Mr Philippe said: “I will not follow Spinetta on this point. One does not decide to close 9,000km of track while sitting in Paris, basing [the decision] on administrative and accounting criteria. In many regions, train lines are at the heart of our strategy to develop transport.”

The unions are not happy with this, seeing it as 'passing the buck' to the regions.

Didier Aubert of the CFDT, said “To say to the regions, ‘You are the ones who will have the final decision’, speaks nothing of trying to save them, or help them with financial difficulties.”

Erik Meyer, of SUD-Rail, said the government was “[cynically] handing the baby back” to the regions.

Paying back of debt

Mr Philippe was clear that SNCF would need to make more effort to pay back its considerable debt (€46.6billion at the end of 2017).

He asked that SNCF “align its costs to European standards”, claiming that “running a train in France currently costs 30% more than elsewhere”.


Use of government decrees

Mr Philippe is aiming to push these reforms through via government “ordonnances”, or decrees, which will allow him to sidestep long Parliamentary debates.

The unions have criticised this, however, with Mr Meyer, of SUD-Rail, saying: “That is not the way to establish a serene debate.”

Yet, Mr Philippe has sought to reassure the unions that these decrees will only apply to “technical aspects” of the reforms, and will not replace parliamentary debate completely.

He said his goal was to vote on “the key principles...before the summer”, with the reforms themselves to be debated and introduced in several stages.

A draft bill to this effect - allowing the government to legislate by decree - is set to be presented to a ministerial council in mid-March.

Mr Philippe has specified that SNCF must present “a strategic company plan guaranteeing a better service for transport users, and a more effective management strategy, including plans for a ‘new social contract’ with current staff...before the summer”.

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