Argument

Macron’s Been Working on the Railroad

France’s train conductors are icons of the country’s 20th-century history. That's exactly why the French president is targeting them.

Emmanuel Macron about to board a train on January 26, 2018 in Orcines, France. (THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Emmanuel Macron about to board a train on January 26, 2018 in Orcines, France. (THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP/Getty Images)

For the millions of commuters and tourists who depend on France’s trains to travel, getting from point A to point B this week means you must first pass through point M, for merde. On Tuesday, the unions representing French rail workers, known by the familiar moniker of les cheminots, launched their long-threatened strike against the government of President Emmanuel Macron and its plan to reform the state-owned rail company, the SNCF, which was created 80 years ago. The unions forecast repeated squalls of merde until the end of June: The trains will run for three days, stop for two days, again roll for three days, etc. As for Macron, he vows to weather the storm — a promise, of course, that implicates the vast majority of his fellow citizens.

The stakes are enormous. At play is not just France’s future — one that is not big enough for both Macron’s reforms and the unions’ resistance — but also a certain idea of the past, one in which les cheminots have played a pivotal, nearly mythical role.

The cheminot embodied the dual revolutions, the French and Industrial, that transformed modern France and, for that matter, the rest of the world. By the dawn of the 20th century, railway workers represented a new kind of working-class elite. Unlike those workers shackled to the assembly lines, the cheminot’s métier — in particular, that of the engineer — required tremendous skill and strength, attention and audacity. Jean Renoir’s film adaptation of Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine, starring the goggled and grizzled Jean Gabin, brings home the job’s harsh reality. While his assistant, the chauffeur, shovels coal into the locomotive’s maw, Gabin keeps one eye on the engine and the other on the tracks. Unable to communicate with other trains or switching stations, exposed to the miserable weather and burning soot, Gabin barrels down tracks that were often one-way and poorly signaled.

If the engineer’s life was often nasty and short, it was also essential for the nation. Come the First World War, conduire pour la France became the watchword of the cheminots. Transporting vital material and munitions to the front, the rail workers were exempted from the draft and, in 1920, won a special statute from the government. This gesture bestowed important benefits on the cheminots, which they reinforced over the years through union militancy and included the now-infamous right to retire in their early 50s. But as the historian Georges Ribeill notes, the statut de cheminot was hardly gratuitous at the time: Average age expectancy among cheminots hardly exceeded the newly established retirement age.

René Clément’s classic 1946 film The Battle of the Rails suggests wartime life expectancy of cheminots was even lower — at least among those who sought to sabotage the Nazi war machine in France. While there was significant resistance activity within the SNCF, especially during the last two years of the occupation, Clément’s film was less historical than mythological — a mythology that somehow neglected the role played by the same SNCF in the transportation of more than 70,000 French and refugee Jews to the Nazi death camps. It was only in 2011 that SNCF President Guillaume Pepy, worried by American state governments threatening to block future contracts, publicly apologized for the SNCF’s role in the wartime deportations.

Nevertheless, there remained a romantic residue of revolution and resistance to the cheminots. In 1968, they played a leading role in the student and labor movements that paralyzed France and eventually led to President Charles de Gaulle’s departure from the Elysée Palace. Nearly three decades later, the cheminots once again brought the country to its knees when it targeted the neo-Gaullist government of President Jacques Chirac. Determined to reduce the state’s deepening debt, then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé had announced a series of decrees tightening requirements and increasing employee payments toward their health and pension benefits. When the labor unions, led by the cheminots, walked off their jobs, Juppé warned that he would not bend to pressure from the street. In a now-notorious line, he declared he would stand “tall in his boots.” Two weeks later, in the wake of a widening strike that brought more than 2 million protestors into the street, Juppé, abandoning both his boots and beliefs, was forced to retire his reform plan.

Macron has now put on the same boots. Earlier this year, he directed Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to place the SNCF in the government’s crosshairs. Few question that reasons are pressing: Growing by more than 2 billion euros every year, the SNCF’s debt is spiraling toward 50 billion euros. While some observers favorably compare this debt to that of other European entities like Britain’s Network Rail, such comparisons miss the real danger. In essence, the hemorrhaging of the SNCF’s deficit ultimately threatens France’s wavering observance of the European Union’s budgetary constraints. Should the SNCF’s debt rise to above 50 billion euros, the state, by the rules of the Maastricht Treaty, will have to assume it as public debt. This, in turn, will hinder France’s effort to keep its own deficit below the EU’s failsafe point of 3 percent. As the journal Mediapart recently observed, this is the “dire scenario” that keeps the government awake at night.

As a result, in a much-anticipated speech in late February, Philippe launched the government’s campaign to dilute, it not entirely eliminate, the cheminots’ special labor law status that traces back to the 1920s. He declared that while the cost of train travel continued to climb, the quality of service continued to decline. While this is a common complaint made by conservatives, it is also controversial. A recent study undertaken by the EU revealed that customer satisfaction with SNCF train service compares more than favorably with other European systems. Philippe also promised to retire the generous retirement rules for new hires. Macron had himself given a much-publicized boost to this particular reform. In a remarkable exchange with an angry cheminot at Paris’s annual International Agricultural Show in February, Macron gave an impromptu lecture. He recalled that his own grandfather was a cheminot and fully deserved his early retirement. But that was then, he added, and this was now. Gesturing to the crowd of farmers, Macron turned to his interlocutor: “What about these farmers who do not have your statute? … You do not work at the same rhythm as did my grandfather. The world has changed, and it would be the height of foolishness to hire a cheminot according to the same rules my grandfather knew.”

Everyone who is anyone in the government, from the president and prime minister to Finance Minister Bruno le Maire and Transport Minister Élisabeth Borne, insists the government has no intention of privatizing the SNCF. At the same time, however, they insist that France must allow other transportation companies, both French and foreign, to compete with the SNCF. As Borne said, the introduction of competition will be incremental and left in the hands of France’s regional governments, which will have the power to either maintain the exclusive services of the SNCF or contract with other transportation companies.

Not surprisingly, the cheminots view the proposed reforms as the beginning of the end for the historic droits acquis, or vested rights, their ancestors had fought over decades to acquire. In response, they devised a devilish work action — two days of stoppage, followed by three days of full operation, then grinding again to a halt for two days — until the end of June. Unlike traditional strike actions, the current iteration is unprecedented, but also unproven. With the initial work stoppage spanning Tuesday and Wednesday, the cheminots succeeded in jamming a huge crowbar in the plans of commuters and travelers. In fact, on Thursday morning, the system had still not fully recovered.

But have they overlooked, as Macron warned, that the world has changed? In 1995, if the French willingly bore the personal and professional sacrifices, it was because the striking cheminots channeled the widespread discontent with the government’s stumbling economic stewardship and its efforts to undo the nation’s welfare net. Sociologists dubbed the work action a “strike by proxy” — a strike undertaken by a single group that nevertheless channeled the discontent of large swathes of the population.

A quarter of a century later, it is not just the world that has changed. The French public has also changed, as has its view of the cheminots. Rather than representing the public’s grievances, the striking rail workers are becoming the object of those grievances.  According to a recent poll, only 46 percent of the French support the cheminots; more tellingly, 72 percent believe that the government will eventually impose its reforms. In this sequel to the battle of the rails, the resistance of the cheminots might well prove futile.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston's Honors College. His most recent book is Boswell's Enlightenment.

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