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France Is Working on Its Railroads - And Unions Blow Their Horns

Six months after a bruising clash with striking railroad workers, France's conservative government is back with a bold plan to save the nation's debt-ridden rail system.

At first glance, the workers won important concessions. But rank-and-file union members worry that by winning this battle, they are losing long-term guarantees of government support for a large public rail service.

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One out of every 4 French workers is employed by the government, some 186,000 for the French national railway alone. If the rail workers' demands are not met, union leaders say they are prepared to set off another public-transport strike.

Government analysts worry that without deep reforms, the rails risk a repeat of last year's $3.3- billion deficit, which could dash the French government's hopes of meeting European Union requirements for a single currency by 1998.

The arbiter in this conflict, expected to be debated through the summer, will be the French public. A majority of the French public supported railway workers during the December 1995 strike. But increasingly they jump into their cars instead of a train for daily transport. In the last 20 years, train use across Europe has dropped by about 50 percent.

The government strategy is to give the national rail service, known by its French acronym SNCF, a chance to be profitable, by having the government absorb $24 billion of the national railway's debt. The government also agrees to abandon plans to challenge the special status of rail workers, including their right to early retirement. That was a key demand in last December's nearly month-long public transport strike.

Government seeks deep changes

But government officials are also demanding deep changes, especially a greater concern for the needs of passengers. At a time when the SNCF was eliminating personnel in suburban railway stations after 8 p.m., employment at SNCF headquarters actually increased to some 14,000 workers. Only 1 out of 6 railway employees has any contact with passengers.

"In the culture of a monopoly, the client has no choices," says Claude Martinand, the Transportation Ministry official who drafted the government's report on the railroads. "Unless there are changes, railway workers could lose everything."

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This week, the SNCF announced new measures to win back public support, including lower fares, better service, and compensation for late trains.

What troubles union leaders, who say they are still in a period of "reflection" on the plan, is that the government proposal also fundamentally changes the rules of the game. Once rid of the burden of billions in accumulated debt, the SNCF is expected to make a profit - or at least accrue much less of a deficit.

Union leaders are reluctant to accept this concept. They also are wary that the proposed reforms will bring France closer to Europe-wide privatizing trends. The European Commission, the executive arm of the 16-member European Union, has been urging member states to deregulate monopolies, including public transport.

Britain is the furthest along this track. Last month, the Conservative government privatized British Rail. A new company, Railtrack, will manage the nation's railroads for some 25 regional franchises, to be privatized later.

Italy, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands have also adopted measures to separate infrastructure from day-to-day operations - seen as the first step toward privatizing public transport. Last year, the German government assumed some $45 billion in debt from its national railroad.

Public transit as a citizen's right

Until now, both the French government and some eight public-transport unions have defended the notion of a distinctively French approach whereby access to public transit is viewed as the right of every citizen. Unions have argued that by this rationale, citizens living in remote parts of France have the right to have unprofitable rail lines maintained on their behalf.

But by December 1995, the accumulated debt of the SNCF had reached $40.8 billion. In 1995, SNCF revenues barely covered salaries alone.

Unions say much of that deficit is the result of putting new rapid trains on line. The government proposes to hand over these costs to a new public agency, which will cover future infrastructure expenses. In January 1997, this new entity would begin to charge the SNCF for use of its rails.

On June 6, some 15,000 to 40,000 rail workers rallied in the French capital in a show of strength in anticipation of the government plan. "We're here to see that the government takes decisions that conform with our needs," said union leader Louis Viannet. "Today will give an idea of our readiness for combat."

Striking railroad workers won the support of some 58 percent of the French public during and even after last December's strike. But polling experts say that support had little to do with railroad workers' grievances.

"Most of those polled didn't know why the railroad workers were on strike," says Roland Cayrol, head of the Paris-based CSA polling organization. "They had their own fears for the future, and saw the strikers as striking for them.

"What we're seeing is a real anxiety in French society about the future - and especially about any changes in the rules of the game," he adds.

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