When the French government unveiled its plan to make the national railway company more competitive and curtail benefit for some workers, commentators in France feared crippling protests comparable to those in 1995, when Alain Juppe’s government had to backtrack on rail sector reforms. Early signs were that President Emmanuel Macron would escape a similar fate. Polls showed support for his approach and the rail unions were divided in their response.
Public support then started to fade and the old fears that France will follow a familiar script have returned: Rail workers are now in their second week of an out of every five days for three months. But this isn’t 1995 and it’s not too late for Macron to win the public over to his side.
Macron has a number of factors on his side. In the 1990s, the French had not yet accepted the idea that their country needed to change; globalization was still a dirty word or something to be ignored. Changing the status of railway workers was seen as the first step towards dismantling privileges for all workers; public support for the strikers was self-interested and overwhelming.
Today, on the contrary, most French people want to see easing of work rules, cutbacks in benefits and loosening of the government stranglehold on public services. And rail workers no longer occupy such a sacred place: While most French workers have had to endure labor market changes, tax hikes and measures to strengthen the free market, there is a sense that employees of the rail company, SNCF, and some other public sector employees have not had to shoulder their share of the burden. Frequent complaints about excessive rail prices and deteriorating service have also cost the rail unions the sympathy they once had. Government reforms, which will open the sector to competition as European Union rules require, promise to improve both service quality and prices, something many travellers find appealing.
So what changed to sour support? Over the last week, unions and opposition parties have pushed back against the picture of railway workers as privileged, and contrasted their working-class lives with the tax reprieve that the government gave to the wealthiest in the last budget. Supporters of the railway workers have also depicted the Macron regime as rigid and arrogant. Finally, the old fear that this reform will lead to a dismantling of other public services has been rekindled.
So far, Macron allowed his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to lead the government’s effort to sell the rail reforms. That made sense initially: The French generally prefer their presidents to stay above the fray. At this point, however, Macron can’t afford to appear aloof.
First, he needs to show that the negotiations are not a mere communication tool. He could do this by taking on board some of the proposals rail supporters have advanced; for example, accepting that the state will assume the SNCF’s massive 45 billion euro ($65) debt and add it to the overall French public debt.
Macron could also do a better job explaining the reform’s objectives; the more the public feels he is simply out to punish rail workers, the harder it will be to sustain support for the measures. Instead, Macron should demonstrate how opening the sector to competition will lead to improvements in the quality of service and prices.
Macron is scheduled to give key media interviews — a good opportunity to make his case and win back support. Success would boost Macron’s reformist credentials at home and abroad and send the biggest signal since his election that France is indeed changing.
Macron has every reason to be confident: He still has ample support in his own parliamentary majority, and France’s opposition remains too fragmented to propose a credible alternative. But his big battle is to win support for his measures, or at least begrudging acceptance, among a public that has traditionally sided with the unions. To do that, he’ll have to step out of the shadows.