Who would have thought it? French president Emmanuel Macron has defeated the French railway unions. His victory is as symbolic as that of Thatcher’s defeat of the miners and suggests that the days when unions in France can hold the country to ransom are over. Those who initially dismissed this putative Napoleon as an empty suit have gravely underestimated him.
The nationalised French railway is not merely a transportation system. It is a quintessential expression of France itself. Globally admired for its pioneering high-speed TGV intercity trains, it has been a pillar of the national economy, a mighty symbol of the unitary French state and a monument to the enduring power of trade unions. It was also considered irreformable.
Well, that might once have been true. Macron inherited a Société Nationale de Chemins de Fer that is drowning in 50 billion euros of debt. Much of its rolling stock is obsolete. Some of its stations, notoriously the Gare du Nord in Paris, are practically slums - the north Paris terminus having been memorably described by Andy Street, then the boss of John Lewis, now the mayor of The West Midlands, as the “squalor pit of Europe.” When, from time to time, its angry workers are not on strike, the trains do not even run on time. Unsurprisingly, passenger numbers have been declining for 10 years.
SNCF reform has been the unrealised dream of French governments for as long as anyone can remember. So Macron’s reform of working conditions, restructuring of the debt and introduction of competition, had all seemed certain to end in retreat and surrender. But Macron proved a more determined reformer than most had expected. He neither retreated nor surrendered. On Thursday, the National Assembly definitively adopted Macron’s program. The battle isn’t quite over, but there’s only one way this is likely to end.
Macron’s victory is not entirely a consequence of his political skill. The tactics of the unions were a text-book example of self-harm. (They are replicated by the equally suicidal tactics of the unions at loss-making Air France, which Macron has also demanded should reform or die.) The unions intended their offensive against Macron to create the maximum havoc, announcing 36 days of intermittent strikes starting in April, and continuing to the end of June. This tactic having failed, the hardline CGT element of the union coalition now intends to irritate the public further by renewing the strikes, this time aiming for a definitive shutdown during the summer tourist season.
But the French no longer need their trains as much as they used to, nor do they have much time for Philippe Martinez, the CGT leader who does a pretty good impression of Arthur Scargill.
A lesson from this affair is that vaunted union power in France has lost its inviolability. The rail unions carry on as if it was 1960 all over again, before there were autoroutes, intercity buses and carpooling apps. But in 2018, if the trains are on strike, a business person can simply hop on an easyJet flight from Toulouse to Paris, or Bordeaux to Marseille (Air France is likely to be on strike.) Or drive. Or simply work at home, armed with an Internet connection. Even before the latest work stoppages, fewer than 10 per cent of journeys in France were made by train.
France’s 150,000 railway workers, known as cheminots, hardly were victims and as commuters fumed in traffic jams trying to get to work, public sympathy for them evaporated. Even train conductors earn more than 50,000 euros a year and can retire at 52 (10 years earlier than other French workers). That’s before the multitude of bonuses, “gratifications” and other “indemnités” rewarding them, inter alia, for it being the end of the year, for going on holiday or for working on the TGV. Other benefits include free travel for themselves and their extended families and, of course, lifetime job security.
So it’s already hard to be sympathetic. But here is another killer fact. For the current generation of railway workers, Macron’s reforms will change nothing. They will lose not a centime. They can continue to retire in the prime of their lives. New working conditions will apply only to those newly hired. The indemnities and bonuses will remain intact. So why are they striking? It’s evident that their hard-left leaders are engaged in an essentially ideological struggle, in which rank and file workers are mere pawns, and the public increasingly disgusted.
If the railway unions are obsolete, they are a perfect reflection of the railway itself. Nothing symbolises the SNCF and its faded glory so much as the grand projet of the sleek, intercity TGV, introduced in 1981, linking major cities to Paris at 200 mph. But today, when they are running at all, twenty per cent of TGV trains are late, and 20 per cent of those are more than 30 minutes late. Meanwhile the Chinese, Japanese and even the Spanish, have matched and surpassed the TGV technology.
There has never been a transparent accounting of the cost of the TGV but it has been so expensive, that even as it extended its network between Paris and France’s conurbations, the regular railway that served the everyday needs of the French began falling into decrepitude. Much of the regional network has become an embarrassment, with ancient, badly maintained rolling stock and lamentable timekeeping.
The infrastructure is frozen in aspic. There was never a Beeching in France, hence at least a third of the legacy network is essentially unviable, carrying just one per cent of all trains. Half the country’s trains run on less than 10 per cent of the nation’s tracks. The UK runs twice as many services per kilometre of track as the French, the Netherlands three times more.
Macron was elected as a consequence of extraordinary political circumstances and despite his crushing victory remains an unattractive personality with an arrogance and supreme self-confidence verging on egomania. But none of this detracts from his exceptional political skill and courage to move swiftly and boldly against the “immobilisme” of a sclerotic economy. His evident inability to empathise with ordinary French people is basically irrelevant given his absolute control over the National Assembly and the apparatus of the state.
Macron doesn’t care if the cheminots are whinging. Angry tribunes in the media from left-wing intellectuals deriding him as a president of the rich leave him entirely unmoved. In his battle with the French unions, he has harnessed luck, circumstance and the incompetence of his foes to bring himself to the verge of a decisive victory, leaving the dinosaurs to contemplate at leisure their failure to take him more seriously.
Jonathan Miller is the author of France: a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron