April 9, 2018 / 9:21 AM / 18 days ago

Breakingviews - Rail strikes will test French appetite for Europe

By Swaha Pattanaik

A mask depicting French President Emmanuel Macron burns during a demonstration to call for a convergence of struggles between French railway company SNCF workers and students in Nantes, France, April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - President Emmanuel Macron has a lot to lose if French voters turn against his railway reform plans. So may the Europe Union. Any backlash against the overhaul of the Gallic train system could fuel resentment against the EU, whose rules are forcing the pace of change.

Train workers are striking a couple of days a week for three months to protest proposed changes to a special status that entitles them to automatic pay rises, special working time conditions, and effectively a job for life. The government wants change partly to ensure the state-run SNCF train company can compete with outsiders by the time EU rules oblige France to open its domestic passenger market. Part of the job is doing something about the SNCF’s high operating costs.

Roughly 15 percent of funding is spent on train lines used by less than 2 percent of passengers. Closing rural routes would, however, be politically more dangerous than taking on the railway workers since, so far, a majority of French people support Macron’s plans to stop hiring workers on such generous terms.

But that majority is growing slimmer. The risk for Macron is that other discontented groups ally themselves with the rail workers. Pensioners were hit by higher social security payments and teachers went on strike in March to protest against planned public sector job cuts.

The EU has not asked for any of the measures designed to cut public spending or the railway sector reforms. But government policy is partly shaped by the bloc’s rules, be they on railway liberalisation or the budget ones policed by the European Commission. Resentment against Macron could therefore easily turn into animosity against Brussels.

The risk is all the greater in a country whose 2017 presidential elections finished with a runoff between Macron and the far-right and Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen. Only a third of the French trust in the EU, a Eurobarometer survey shows. That’s the third-lowest score after Britain, which is leaving the bloc, and Greece, which has endured a decade of austerity and came close to quitting the euro in 2015. If antipathy for Macron’s reforms grows, so will mistrust of the European Union.

Breakingviews

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