French President Emmanuel Macron hailed a ‘new chapter’ in the country’s rail history on Wednesday after signing into law a reform that triggered the longest transport strike in decades.
‘The new chapter that is opening today for our railways is important, it’s a profound transformation,’ Macron said in a signing ceremony at the presidential palace, alongside Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne.
Macron chalked up a key victory in his drive to reform the French economy when parliament this month approved an overhaul of the debt-laden state rail operator SNCF that unions tried for three months to derail.
On Wednesday, the centrist president extended an olive branch to the unions, two of whom have called for further strikes on July 6-7, the Friday and Saturday of the first big weekend of the holiday season.
‘I know that it (the reform) has raised concerns among rail workers,’ Macron said, adding that the government had taken onboard those concerns it considered ‘legitimate’.
Train drivers in particular have resisted plans to phase out job-for-life and pension guarantees for new SNCF employees.
They also oppose plans to turn the SNCF into a joint-stock company, seeing it as a first step toward privatisation which they believe would harm public services.
The government argues that the SNCF – a bastion of union power – needs to cut costs and improve flexibility before the EU passenger rail market is opened up to competition from December 2019.
The company has some 47 billion euros ($55 billion) in legacy debt, much of it stemming from the rollout of sleek high-speed TGV trains, long a source of national pride.