‘French pensions reforms mean €300 a month loss’

The Connexion talks to Bruno Poncet, the secretary general of the Sud Rail union

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“What counts now is action. Feedback suggests the protests will be well followed, especially in Paris,” Bruno Poncet told Connexion.

He said he was not surprised by public support, even though opinion turned against previous rail strikes by the time they ended in summer last year.

“In 2018, the things we were striking for, essentially a high quality public service, seemed a bit abstract to people,” he said.

“Now the retirement plans are being published and people see that they will probably be affected in a negative way.”

The government wants to end the current situation of 42 “special regimes” which differ from the rules for ordinary employees.

This was an election pledge of President Macron aimed at simplification.

The government also proposes a general overhaul of the way pensions are calculated.

Currently, the cheminots rail workers have a pension based on a percentage of their final salary, as opposed to ordinary workers’ pensions, which are based on their ‘25 best years’.

French pensions are proportional to social charges paid in, and therefore to size of salary.

They are not a fixed sum for all, as in the UK: 2019 figures show the average pension in France is €1,422 a month before tax and charges.

It is proposed that pensions should be calculated based on ‘points’ accumulated over a whole career, allocated in proportion to charges paid in.

Compensation payments and bonuses that currently make up around a quarter of a cheminot’s pay, according to one retired railworker Connexion interviewed, would also count towards points, whereas they do not currently count towards the pension – but social charges would now be levied on them.

Under the proposals, rail workers risk losing €300-€500 a month from pensions, which are already below the national average, Mr Poncet claimed.

“We start work on low salaries compared to similar trades in the private sector, and it takes 30 years of seniority for us to more or less catch up,” he said.

“Pensions are calculated on the last six months’ pay after 40 years of service. In the future, if they are based on points calculated from starting wages, we will lose out.

“The whole project has to be withdrawn. All workers who start off on low wages in the public service in France are in a similar position.”

If the first day of the strike is successful, he expects it to go on for a long time.

“We have been talking to the government since before the strike of 2018,” he said. If it does not listen now, I don’t know what will happen.”

Mr Poncet said he expected the strike to be like that of 1995, when Parisians had to hitch-hike to work, rather than the more recent ones where trains ran on a reduced service.

Laws dating from 2007 aimed at a “minimum service” during strikes cannot force rail bosses to provide this if most of the workers are on strike.

Other rail union demands focus on changes to the legal structure of the SNCF planned next year, which the unions fear is a first step towards privatisation. They also oppose the opening of France’s railways to foreign and private rail firms, which is scheduled to increase in coming years.

“Rail is so capital-intensive that if companies are driven by profit and not public service, the only way to get dividends for shareholders is by cutting wages,” Mr Poncet said.