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French rail workers claim strike defends public service

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Striking rail workers with the trade union Force Ouvrière (Worker's Force) demonstrate against plans to reform the national rail company, the SNCF, in Paris, 3 April 2018. Mike Woods

Rail traffic in France was heavily disrupted on Wednesday on a second day of strikes against plans to reform the national rail company, the SNCF. Since the industrial action began, stranded travellers have expressed divided opinions over the strikes, which unions say are about much more than job protection and benefits.


On a normal weekday morning, the Gare de l’Est, one of the six main railway stations of the French capital, would be bustling with commuter activity.

But, as up to three months of rolling strikes got underway on Tuesday, the station, which serves the east of the country and beyond into Germany, was nearly deserted.

“Usually at this time of day, there are long lines of passengers for the taxis, but because of the strike, there’s no one,” said Tarek, a taxi driver lined up outside the station.

“It’s like that everywhere. There’s no sense going to the railway stations today.”

Some travellers were left stranded though, and some of them did not have much sympathy for the striking workers.

The rail unions are organising a series weekly two-day strikes spaced out over a three-month period.

“We’re not very supportive,” said Aurélie, who was told she and her mother had to find a bus to get home to Strasbourg.

“The SNCF are known for these strikes, they have the monopoly and they’re know how to take advantage of it.”

Others were more sympathetic to the unions and their demands.

“Even if a strike is bothersome for travellers, there’s obviously a reason they’re doing it,” said Mélisande, 22, who planned ahead to be at the station at a time when she was sure to find a train.

“Everyone has the right to job protection, so why shouldn’t they have theirs? I’m on their side, for sure.”

Others had mixed feelings, including Anis, 24, who had hoped to take a morning train to arrive at afternoon engineering classes in Nancy, but who was told no trains were available until the evening.

“I saw on the SNCF website that I might be able to buy tickets here, so I came at eight o’clock, but no,” he said of a predicament that casts a shadow over his view of the striking workers.

“I understand their fear and the purpose of the strike, but I can’t go to school due to this, so it’s complicated. They have the right to strike and I have the right to go to college. But I can’t.”

Battle for public sympathy

Unions want to stop a reform that would phase out rail workers' special employment status, which comes with benefits including early retirement, but also obligations of inconvenient working hours and irregular timetables.

“We want is to keep our public railways and keep the way we are working right now,” says Emmanuelle Bigot of the trade union Sud Rail, at a rally of workers and their supporters outside the Gare de l’Est in the afternoon.

“I think the people will stand with the railways and the rail workers against the government.”

But the government says those employment conditions are part of what makes the company too costly.

The unions insist the strike is about much more than the status itself.

“It’s their weapon for turning public opinion against us,” says Quentin Barbier, a rail traffic controller and member of the trade union Force Ouvrière.

“They’re going to treat us as the bad guys, as spoiled workers trying to keep our privileges. So it’s also our job to send the message that if we’re on strike, it’s to keep a public service.”

In this sense, the strikes will test President Emmanuel Macron’s ability to push through sweeping reforms.

“I don’t understand the strike,” Juien Denormandie, a junior government minister, told French media on Wednesday.

“Some say we want to break up public services and that’s simply wrong.”

In turn, the strikes will also test the unions’ ability to effectively argue in favour of keeping things the way they are.

“We’ve had a lot of public sympathy leading up to the strike, but we have to be realistic,” Barbier says. “People have mouths to feed and if they can’t take the train to work, it’s a problem for them and their support can quickly fade.

“So we try and say that if we disrupt the trains today, it’s so we’ll all have trains tomorrow,” he  continues. “Unfortunately, this strike will be won by whoever manages to win the hearts of the public.”