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France's railway workers should stay strong – victory in this dispute matters to all of us

FRANCE’S rail workers have rattled their government — with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s offer to absorb most of the state railway (SNCF’s) debt an obvious bid to divide the workforce two months into rolling strike action.

The French PM appears to have struck a chord with some trade union leaders, with Unsa’s Roger Dillenseger saying it showed the value of talks.

But that won’t sit well with the 95 per cent vote by railway staff who voted earlier this week against President Emmanuel Macron’s reform plans, and the bolder approach of the CGT union should be an inspiration to trade unionists everywhere.

Macron’s attack on the terms and conditions of railway workers, part of preparation for SNCF to compete with private operators in line with the requirements of the EU’s Fourth Railway Package, is a bellwether dispute whose outcome will have repercussions beyond France.

The president’s admirers have compared it to the miners’ strike. And the fact his fans see Thatcher’s war on the miners, which crippled an industry, devastated communities, ruined lives and created a national dependence on imported fuel that continues to this day, as something worth celebrating tells you everything you need to know about the Macron project.

The debt relief offer is frankly irrelevant. For one thing, the government had already said it would take on much of SNCF’s debt as part of its liberalisation package.

The debt itself is bandied about in a misleading manner, as if it is an indication of the state railway’s inefficiency. Actually it largely derives from investment in building France’s state-of-the-art high-speed railway network, and as projects like HS2 over here show serious infrastructure development requires public investment, whether or not railway travel has been privatised.

The transfer of debt from a publicly owned company to the public itself is at best an accounting trick. At worst, it’s an indication that Macron’s long-term plan is to privatise SNCF — something he has always strenuously denied. But it’s hard to see debt relief as a sweetener for anyone other than potential privateers who hope to profit from the service one day.

It doesn’t change the main thrust of the reforms a bit. And the problem, as the CGT points out, is the plan to open up rail travel to tender in the first place.

British passengers and rail workers know all too well what the results of the EU’s railway privatisation drive will be, since dire service, cost-cutting, underinvestment and absurd ticket prices are for us a daily reality.

Macron poses as a moderniser, but working people in every European country are turning away from the neoliberal mantra that the profit motive is the key driver of efficiency and innovation — since it has so clearly resulted in the enrichment of a tiny and unproductive minority at everyone else’s expense and the devaluation of both monetary wages and the social wage represented by public services.

He boasts of having “liberalised” France’s intercity coach network, but in an age when more people than ever recognise the need for sustainability and environmental planning, his removal of regulations that stopped pointless competition over existing routes and barred coaches from seeking to undercut less polluting railway lines looks like a backward step.

Macron’s mandate for his policies is exaggerated and his public persona as the saviour of liberal Europe is at odds with his record as one of Europe’s most authoritarian leaders, ruling by decree and legislating for a permanent state of emergency.

But he is indeed the main hope of Europe’s liberals that the neoliberal consensus around a low-tax, small state, unregulated capitalism can be revived after its loss of popular legitimacy from 2007 onwards.

A victory for France’s rail workers would be a serious setback for that project and would embolden labour movements throughout Europe.

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