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French press review 17 June 2014

Today's front pages are all about the strike in the French rail sector.


Le Monde's printed edition gives pride of place to the on-going strike in the French rail sector, with a main story which offers to explain the radicalisation of the dispute.

The strikers say they are being "diabolised", "caricatured" by the media, with reports saying support for the strike has dwindled to almost zero, and blaming the few remaining hardliners for adding to the stress of those who started their final French school exams this week. As one striker points out, the timing of the strike was chosen to coincide with this week's parliamentary debate of the reform of the rail sector, not the exams, and it was the government that scheduled the debate.

Communist L'Humanité says the strike is all about protecting a public service worthy of the name, and that the government has made an error in refusing to defer the debate by even a few days, choosing instead to capitalise on misinformed public opinion with a view to forcing through socially regressive legislation.

Background reading: Previous French scandals

Basically, there are three bones of contention: the government wants to carve up the current rail administration into three blocks, the rails, the things that roll on them, and an overall management body. The unions are unimpressed by the prospect of three parallel management structures, and see the move as the first step on the road, or railway, to a piecemeal privatisation.

Workers' representatives are in favour of even closer integration of the rail and rolling stock elements, saying this will promote savings and enhance security. Part of the problem is that Europe is insisting on a judicial and financial separation of the rail lines themselves, as a prelude to opening the European rail network to competition. The unions are opposed to such a move towards competition for freight and passengers, saying that it will lead to the stauration of busy parts of the network and the delapidation of the less frequented lines.

The second bone of contention would keep an army of dogs chewing for several centuries: the fact is that the French rail system, as currently run, has an accumulated debt of 40 billion euros. The interest charges alone add one and a half billion euros to that astronomical amount each year. The government wants to slow down investment and reduce the maintenance budget to a safe minimum. The strikers say there is no minimum for passenger safety, and that the debt is the government's problem, since much of it is the hangover from 1980s spending on the high-speed rail system, spending which was ordered by the state, and financed on credit. The outstanding money is not rail debt, say the unions, it's public debt, and should be taken up by the government.

And then there's the question of the terms and conditions under which rail workers are employed. The caricatural version is of a geezer who is lazy, pampered, conservative and selfish. There is no doubt that workers in the rail sector do have certain clear advantages, in terms of working hours, retirement age, travel benefits. But the image of a workforce determined to hang on to advantages garnered under the more difficult working conditions of the 19th century is exaggerated. Rail workers have a special status, according to the unions, because their jobs have a direct impact on the safety of travellers. The government has been broadly conciliatory on the question of conditions, but wants to increase the minimum working hours for some categories of workers.

Conservative Le Figaro praises the socialist prime minister Manuel Valls for his take-no-nonsense attitude in the rail dispute, but warns that he'll probably have to show a bit more flexibility in the row with the part-timers in the entertainment industry, unless he wants to see the very lucrative and culturally prestigious summer festival season go down the tubes.

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