Mike Yardley reports:
Despite the first flash of winter’s fangs gripping NZ, it’s good to be home. I’ve spent most of May in Europe, where in France the talk on the street is not about royal weddings or abortion referendums, but strikes.
Are the French ever not striking?
In France, the mass show of union militancy is more about protecting the special privileges that have cossetted much of the public sector in a pampered parallel universe for decades. But they may have finally met their match in French President Emmanuel Macron.
All previous Presidents have basically failed to do significant reform.
A central plank in his election manifesto was to “unlock” the French economy and reshape the public sector, which employs one in five workers. And the unions are fighting back.
The spring of discontent started with Air France staging rolling strikes, despite staff being offered a 7 per cent pay rise over four years. The ailing carrier is drowning in debt, propped up by its alliance with KLM and the French Government’s ownership stake.
The French Economy Minister has just reiterated that without staff agreement to improve competitiveness, the airline “will simply disappear, because the state is not there to pay off the company’s debts”.
Sadly letting a union wiping itself out of existence by getting all its members redundant may be the only way they’ll learn.
Major public sector reforms aim to cut 120,000 state jobs from its 5.6 million workforce, while also blitzing the entrenched jobs-for-life culture and ludicrous retirement age entitlements.
The most formidable priority is to drag SNCF, the state railway company, into the real world, triggering the biggest shake-up to France’s railways since they were nationalised in 1930s. The reform is due to help the debt-ridden operator prepare for the onset of EU-sanctioned foreign rail competition starting next year.
Currently, SNCF trains cost 30 per cent more to run than Swiss or German trains, and the rail company has amassed debts of nearly NZ$100 billion.
Macron is proposing to bail out SNCF in exchange for rehashing the employment terms and axing the jobs-for-life special status.
Railway staff enjoy extraordinary privilege, dating from the days when workers shovelled coal into steam engines.
At present, most railway staff can retire on a gold-plated pension at 55, while train drivers and conductors can retire at 50-52 – compared to the national retirement age of 62. They also enjoy free train travel and subsidised housing for life.
You can see why they don’t want to give it up. Perks for life and a pension at age 50.
Since April, chaos has consumed train travel, with two days in every five being paralysed by rolling rail strikes. On Tuesday last week, a general strike saw the likes of street sweepers, librarians and teachers, join rail staff in paralysing France. After rampaging through spring, the rail strikes look set to stalk summer, too. But this time, it’s different.
Public opinion polls don’t back the unions and Macron is vowing not to join a long list of predecessors who capitulated to the revolt on the street.
Good luck to him.