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Europe French ministers try to stave off rail strikes with investment promises

Unions gearing up for a month of action over Macron's attack on industry standards

FRENCH Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne tried to stave off looming rail strikes today with an offer to invest €10 million (£8.9m) a day in the network if workers swallow attacks on their pay and conditions.

“Nobody has anything to gain from a protracted strike,” she pleaded a day after four unions — CGT, Sud, Unsa and CFDT — met to discuss joint strike action. They have warned of rolling strikes from March 12.

CGT secretary-general Laurent Brun says: “There is no doubt that it will take a month-long strike to get the government to back down. We will rise to the challenge.”

Plans unveiled by President Emmanuel Macron on Monday would end jobs for life on state railway SNCF, end pay rises based on seniority and reduce the value of pensions by making staff work longer before claiming them and removing various benefits.

He has indicated he will force the reforms through by decree, since they are unlikely to win parliamentary approval — a draconian tactic he used last autumn to ram through attacks on trade union rights.

Unions say Mr Macron is softening up the railway for privatisation, which he denies, but SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy admitted that the package was a bid to prepare for competition with the private sector.

Resisting the changes would be “an amazing leap backwards” when rival firms win the right to compete against it from next year, as they will, due to France’s requirement to introduce competition to the rail network under the EU Fourth Railway Package.

A report on the future of French rail delivered by former Air France CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta on February 15 urged forcing a “new social contract” on rail workers while imposing large-scale redundancies as the public service is transformed into a “competitive business” tendering against others to win rail contracts, as happens in Britain.

Ministers say the current system is too expensive, though rail privatisation in Britain has actually increased public subsidies.

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire says the government may write off SNCF debts “once we have transformed the status of railway workers.”

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