French Senate approves controversial SNCF reforms

The French Senate chamber, where Senators voted in favour of the reforms by 240 to 85

The French Senate has approved the controversial proposals to reform national railway firm SNCF, following the first debate on the subject.

The political body adopted the reforms on Tuesday (June 5), by 240 votes in favour to 85 against.

The proposal text will now be discussed on Monday (June 11) by a cross-party joint committee, which has been given the task of finding a final agreement between MPs and Senators.

The vote has been described as “how to stop a strike”, by political reporter Gérard Cornu, who said: “The Senate has put the reform on the right track. I am sure it will not be derailed by the joint committee.”

Senator Claude Malhuret (Independents) said the vote was “good news” for the French people, and referred to the strikes that have seen SNCF trains operating on a limited service for over three months.

He said: “This is [rightly] a bitter defeat for those who organised the worst form of strike; a strike that was designed to damage to a maximum level the life of our fellow citizens.”

Yet, Senator Éliane Assassi in the CRCE communist party - many members of which voted against the reform - disagreed.

She said: “This text runs the risk of creating new railway deserts, which prioritise financial profit over the right to movement [by passengers].”

She added: “[This vote will transform] SNCF into a myriad of different anonymous companies; will destroy the [traditional] cheminot status of workers; and moves us closer to opening SNCF up to competition.”

Transport minister Élisabeth Borne called on “everyone to adopt their own responsibilities”, and said: “Everything is now in place. A bill that will soon be definitively adopted; unprecedented financial commitments made by the government, and a course set for industry negotiations.”

Yet, one Senator sought to play down the changes: Olivier Jacquin, of the PS party, said: “This is not a new railway agreement. If conflict continues, it is because people are still worried. We will not give a blank cheque for an unknown destination.”

But others felt that the process - which included a debate and several changes to the text ahead of the vote - had demonstrated the power of the bicameral (two chamber) system in France.

Frédéric Marchand, Senator in the LREM party, said: “This vote is the result of a collective exercise in which the Senate and the government worked together intelligently.”

During the debates, the Senate sought to underline the importance of SNCF and its ability to operate without competition, as well as to ensure that services in key areas for industry development would be maintained.

According to reports, the chamber also acted to strengthen the guarantees and salary options available to workers.

Most of these are staff employed under the existing “statut de Cheminot” contracts - which effectively guarantee a job with the railway for life.

The proposed reforms are set to remove this contract for future employees, with many workers having been striking against this planned change since April.

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