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French President Emmanuel Macron’s government offered to pay off most of the national SNCF rail company’s debt today in a desperate bid to end crippling strikes.
The offer was made by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in a bid to split rail unions who have been taking joint strike action over government plans to break up the railways over the past two months.
He hopes the offer — which would see the government pay €35 billion of the company’s €47bn debt — will be accepted by the right-wing unions, including the CFDT and Unsa.
Announcing the offer, head of the Unsa union’s rail branch Roger Dillenseger said that it showed it was “worth negotiating with the government.” He told reporters the debt relief would happen in two stages — €25bn in 2020, and another €10bn in 2022.
He said the union would consult its members about whether to call off the strike action.
“We still have major concerns,” he said, adding that “the negotiations are paying off.”
However CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez warned that the strikes would continue and urged the government to get back around the table “to fix its commitments.”
Head of the CGT rail workers section Laurent Brun said that “mobilisation is more than necessary” with “a government that is struggling to commit.”
“Our fears are still present,” he said.
The showdown between the unions and the government is a major test of Mr Macron’s plans to introduce sweeping neoliberal restructuring and shed 120,000 public-sector workers by 2020.
The government claims its proposals are necessary to make French trains more efficient and less costly to operate ahead of European rules opening the industry to competition in 2020.
However, unions have warned against the privatisation of France’s extensive rail network which was nationalised in 1937. And they have taken two months of rolling strike action against attacks on their terms and conditions, including drastic cuts to rail workers pensions and the end of annual pay rises.
Taking on the rail unions is deemed by many to be a risky strategy, with the CGT defeating a previous government attack on pensions in 2010. In 1995, train drivers stopped attacks on social security through strike action.
Earlier this week a stunning 95 per cent of union members rejected the government’s proposed rail reforms.
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