Strikes Don't Have to Derail Macron's Plans

When the French government unveiled its plan to make the national railway company more competitive and curtail benefit for some workers, commentators in France feared crippling protests comparable to those in 1995, when Alain Juppe’s government had to backtrack on rail sector reforms. Early signs were that President Emmanuel Macron would escape a similar fate. Polls showed support for his approach and the rail unions were divided in their response.

Public support then started to fade and the old fears that France will follow a familiar script have returned: Rail workers are now in their second week of a out of every five days for three months. But this isn’t 1995 and it’s not too late for Macron to win the public over to his side.

Macron has a number of factors on his side. In the 1990s, the French had not yet accepted the idea that their country needed to change; globalization was still a dirty word or something to be ignored. Changing the status of railway workers was seen as the first step toward dismantling privileges for all workers; public support for the strikers was self-interested and overwhelming.

Today, on the contrary, most French people want to see easing of work rules, cutbacks in benefits and loosening of the government stranglehold on public services. And rail workers no longer occupy such a sacred place: While most French workers have had to endure labor market changes, tax hikes and measures to strengthen the free market, there is a sense that employees of the rail company, SNCF, and some other public sector employees have not had to shoulder their share of the burden. Frequent complaints about excessive rail prices and deteriorating service have also cost the rail unions the sympathy they once had. Government reforms, which will open the sector to competition as European Union rules require, promise to improve both service quality and prices, something many travellers find appealing.

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