Ten months after taking power, Emmanuel Macron, his Prime Minister and his government will be facing their first real taste of opposition in the next few weeks. As so often happens in France, it will come from the street and as so often in the past, it will be mounted by railway workers. This time they are protesting about the government’s proposals for reform of the SNCF. There is a general impression in the media and public opinion that the future of Macron’s reforming agenda will be determined by the outcome of this dispute
The objective reasons for reforming the wholly state-owned SNCF can be summarised in a few sentences and are hardly in dispute: the company has a quasi monopoly of rail services in France, a debt of over €50 billion, about 160,000 employees for just over 300,000 pensioners and its running costs are roughly 30% higher than those of its European competitors. The main reason for this is that train drivers, maintenance and sales staff and on-board ticket inspectors work shorter hours and are entitled to longer holidays and earlier retirement than most other public and private sector workers. Their highly specific labour contract, their “statut” as it is called, dates back to 1920 when a large part of their job consisted in shovelling coal into the boilers of steam-powered locomotives. The government is intent on abandoning the “statut” for new recruits and turning the SNCF, currently an integral part of the public sector and therefore immune to normal market pressures, into a still publicly owned but normal joint stock company to be run on a more commercial basis. It should be noted in passing that the SNCF, through its majority owned subsidiary, Keolis, is successfully and profitably running railway, tramway and bus service all over the world, from Boston, Massachusetts, to India to Australia. But in France, it has never been able to do so. In protest against the reform plans, the railway unions have announced a two-day strike every three days from the beginning of April to the end of June, a strike mode designed, as a union official quite openly admitted on television a few nights ago, “to combine maximum disruption to train services with minimum loss of earnings for railway workers”.
As previous French governments have accepted, after much procrastination, an EU-wide regulation introducing greater competition in rail services, while doing nothing to prepare the SNCF to meet it, it is clear enough to most people why these fairly minimal reforms are necessary. But the unions see the reform as the thin end of the wedge towards more flexible working practices, longer hours and more commercial management. And yet, the government has been careful to stake out its ground: existing employees will keep their statut until they retire, and no proposal is being made at this stage to reform their generous pension scheme or close down unprofitable rail services, both of which will be dealt with in 2019 or later. The government has promised consultation with the unions, presumably one of the reasons why they haven’t called a strike until after the Easter weekend. There will undoubtedly be many such consultations, out of the media spotlight, between now and April 3.
This ritual process of consultation is probably the key to the outcome of the dispute. In France, no more than anywhere else, employees are understandably reluctant to give up employment privileges, however out-dated. But in France, much more than anywhere else, people in general insist on being consulted, expressing their views and being listened to. In the somewhat futile “what-if” approach to history, many are those who wonder whether the French Revolution, for instance, would have taken the course it did if Louis XVI had listened more carefully to the complaints of his downtrodden subjects. The fact is that every French person feels that everyone has a right to speak out and be listened to. Having lived in France for so many years, I have lost count of the number of meetings of committees, associations or other groups I have attended in which participants did not necessarily want to answer the chairperson’s questions, react to what someone else had just said or propose a practical way forward but simply to sound off about what was on their mind. In an Anglo-Saxon culture, a meeting of any kind usually has a chairperson, whose job it is to guide the meeting through an agenda, give the floor to people who ask for it, sum up the discussion and suggest a way forward. In France, and I suspect in most countries with a more Latin culture, the chairperson is seen as more of an honorific title than a function, the agenda is vague, contributions to the discussion are spontaneous and not necessarily about the point at issue, there is little attempt to sum up and once everybody has had a chance to express their views, the meeting goes on to talk about something else or breaks up. Subsequently, whatever needs to be done gets done - those with executive power have to find a way of reconciling conflicting views and constraints, often an impossible task. But the essential thing for most people is not necessarily that decisions are taken but that everyone has had a chance to air their views.
French labour unions, far stronger in the public than the private sector, have become extraordinarily skilled at exploiting these foibles of the national psyche. On top of presenting labour conflicts in the usual guise of workers fighting for their rights against an uncaring and technocratic government, they frequently complain that governments “don’t listen”, have already “made up their mind” or refuse to engage in “real negotiations”, which is usually union speak for the refusal to meet their demands. Other bogeymen designed to resonate powerfully with the public are often conjured up too, like “an all-out attempt to destroy”, or - even more prominent in union demonology - to “privatise” public services. For their part, ministers fall over themselves to declare that they are “negotiating in good faith” and that “their door is always open”.
It is of course the unions’ role to defend their members' interests as best they can. As for the government, it may have picked its fight carefully over SNCF reform but it has not made life easier for itself by announcing that it will legislate through the French equivalent of executive orders (ordonnances), which makes it sound as if it will not listen to the other side and is refusing a proper parliamentary debate. And for the first time since the start of the Macron presidency, the unions are apparently united in their chosen course of action.
The cause of the last major transport strike of 1995, that paralysed the whole country for six long weeks, was that Prime Minister Alain Juppé unexpectedly foisted radical reform proposals on unsuspecting public sector employees, including railway workers, and they were justifiably angry. The government eventually had to back down and abandon much of its proposed reform. And it was not because the unions won the argument but because a majority of the general public, in spite of the chaos in the country and the extreme difficulty of getting to work or anywhere else, ultimately chose to back the public sector employees and not the government. I suspect that the key to averting or ending the promised rail strike this time will not be the merits of each side’s arguments but, once again, whether people generally feel that the railway workers have been given not necessarily a fair deal but a fair hearing in the court of public opinion. Today, railway workers’ “anger”, faced with a reform that Macron has abundantly trailed and that will not affect them much anyway, sounds more rhetorical than real. But the government does not have much ground to give. If it does come to a protracted strike, both sides will appeal to public opinion - and public opinion will decide.
One thing is therefore abundantly clear. If the government manages to attain the limited goals of this reform and is considered to have won its fight with the unions, it will have a freer hand to move on to the more ambitious reforms that Macron has promised in other areas. If it has to back down, it will have seriously weakened its capacity to take on more intractable issues like pension reform or the reorganisation of the tentacular civil service. It is worth recalling that many of those who voted for Macron in May of last year did not necessarily support his reforming ambitions but wanted, quite simply, to prevent Marine le Pen from coming to power. His reforms to date, of the labour code, vocational training and university access have not caused much protest, but on the other hand, for all except the very wealthy, taxes have risen. Sooner or later, men and women in the street will deliver their verdict on his efforts so far and decide whether they want him to continue.