The French rail strikes show the EU reforms are working
France is the most popular country for tourists in the world, but many visitors this spring were met with a rude welcome: transport gridlock. The extensive rail network, which carries passengers at high speeds across the country, was all but shut down thanks to a series of strikes by unions protesting against government reforms to the system. The rolling industrial action was a classic French union strike, causing disruption across the network. Yet it failed. And its failure reveals much about how European Union rail reforms are succeeding.
Despite weeks of strikes – in which two days out of every five were affected – the reforms proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron passed.
Until now, French government has been unwilling to reform the railway system, which is extremely efficient for consumers, hugely admired, yet generates massive losses. Macron’s victory is especially impressive as the cheminots, or rail workers, have a particular power to cause chaos.
Macron’s reforms will prepare the indebted state rail national railway operator, SNCF, for competition from 2020 under agreed EU rules, which will allow foreign operators to offer their own high-speed connections within France. One of the measures is the scrapping of special status enjoyed by railway workers, which includes a job for life.
Unions like the CGT claimed that the reform would also lead to higher ticket prices and a weaker public service and accused the government of a secret plan to privatise the railways. The first two points are unconfirmed and the third misreads the reform: after 2020, when the SNCF will be turned into a société anonyme (the French equivalent of a joint stock company), the French government will remain as its single shareholder, following the example of Germany’s Deutsche Bahn.
This shows how the EU, initially slow to intervene in rail transport, is having an effect. The EU first urged Europe’s rail sector to liberalise as far back as the 1990’s. Between 2001 and 2016, four packages of EU directives were adopted, aimed at splitting the rail infrastructures from the rail companies; opening rail freight to competition; extending competition to the international passenger services; and finally, to ensuring the interoperability of the rail system among the whole EU.
Much of the coverage of the French strikes has focused on the fading power of the unions. Indeed, the overall share of railway workers taking part in the strikes dropped from 34% to just 10%. The SNCF has estimated the cost of the walkouts at €400 million. But while the strikes were inconvenient, French commuters found ways around them, using new technology like apps to organised ride-sharing and the SNCF’s live updated train schedules.
Crucially, the government explained clearly why the reforms were needed. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said they were about protecting public services and giving the French railways – currently an unwieldy, costly monopoly – a chance to withstand competition when the SNCF’s monopoly on domestic passenger rail expires in 2020. He said the state would take on €35 billion of the railways’ debt, assuming this gets past EU competition rules. Macron himself said that Germany had undergone the same reforms years ago resulting in a better and cheaper service.
Aside of the strikes, the French railways are the envy of Europe. But they are unsustainable in their current form. The EU offered a way out and Macron’s reforms should keep the trains running as fast and frequently for years to come.