February 16, 2018 / 10:53 AM / 3 months ago

CORRECTED-French unions vow to fight back over rail shakeup

(Corrects Edouard Philippe’s title and spelling)

* Labour leader slams government plan to “smash” public service

* Says protests could snowball into strike if government persists

* Protests slated for March 22

By Brian Love

PARIS, Feb 16 (Reuters) - French labour union leaders condemned plans for sweeping reforms at the debt-ridden state railways and warned the government on Friday that protests would snowball into full-blown strikes if it refused to reconsider.

The threat set the scene for a potentially damaging showdown with President Emmanuel Macron and his nine-month-old government after it announced that the state-owned SNCF train company would be shaken up as a matter of urgency.

“When we are attacked we fight back,” the leader of the CGT labour union, the largest among the 260,000 rail workers, said. “We don’t trust this government.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe fired the opening salvo a day earlier, saying the railways were in such as worrying state of disrepair and indebtedness that only a “transformation” of the SNCF could ensure its survival.

Unions and SNCF management were summoned to talks next week that Philippe said would set the ball rolling.

The stage was set by a government-commissioned report which recommended that the SNCF’s debts - more than 45 billion euros and rising — be wiped off its books and absorbed as part of France’s national debt.

That transfer, it said, should go hand-in-hand with profound change in the way the SNCF has operated since nationalisation in the 1930s; for unions that spells the end to jobs for life and a right for many SNCF staff to retire on a full pension at 50 or 55, a decade earlier than most private-sector employees.

“Everything will be on the table,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told CNews TV. It was no longer tenable, he said, for the SNCF to go on incurring losses of three billion euros a year.

CGT chief Martinez said protests were scheduled for March 22 and could turn into a strike movement if the government did not change tack. Other smaller unions have been equally critical and could support strike action that day.

Martinez said the CGT was proposing extra investment in rail lines neglected in favour of high-speed TGV lines which, while admired by many, have sucked money away from the rest of the network which transports most French people day to day.

Another challenge looming for the SNCF is the arrival of EU-wide liberalisation, which will open France’s network to rival rail firms gradually, starting in 2019.

Martinez accused Macron’s government of seeking to “smash” the public service, adding on public radio station France Inter: “If we’re treated like idiots there’ll be no negotiating with those who treat us like imbeciles.” (Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Yann Le Guernigou; Editing by Peter Graff)

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