It brings together European Union (EU) privatisation demands and the anti-working class French government.
President Emmanuel Macron is launching a frontal assault on the workers in the state-owned SNCF rail network.
They are regarded as the best-organised section of French workers, and have inflicted bitter defeats on previous governments.
Speaking to the Le Monde newspaper, pollster Jereme Sainte-Marie had advice for Macron. “For him it would be best for the SNCF reform to look like a real battle,” he said.
“If victory were too easy, he would get less out of it politically.
“It would be better if it were like the miners’ strike for Thatcher, a heroic struggle against the dreaded fantasy of the trade union monster—that he ultimately wins.”
Macron’s prime minister Edouard Philippe has said that the government will quickly push through changes by special executive decree without a vote in parliament if necessary.
But workers are not shrinking from the battle. There is a major demonstration by rail workers this week on 22 March to coincide with a big strike by civil service workers, teachers and others, supported by pensioners and students. SUD Rail, one of the smaller rail unions, has called a strike on the day.
Then from April to June all the rail unions have announced two days out of every five will be strikes - a total of 36 strike days.
Axel Persson, a train driver at the Trappes depot in Paris, told Socialist Worker, “This is a crucial struggle that could define the future for French workers.
“The government and SNCF management want fundamental change on the railways.
“The first strand is closing lines that are not regarded as profitable enough. Secondly there will be fare increases to increase profits.
“Thirdly they will strip away from all new workers the collective agreements that apply now.”
Axel explained that, if successful, Macron’s plans will clear the way for privatisation.
“The government will take on SNCF’s debt and private companies will absorb sections of a workforce on much worse conditions and pay than at present,” he said.
Macron wants to get rid of the Statute of Railworkers. It has existed in one form or another since 1912. It was developed most fully after a great rail strike of 1920.
“It was updated in 1938 after the railways became majority state-owned and then again after the Second World War,” said Axel. “It protects workers and gives them basic rights everyone should have.
“Once you have passed the tests, you can’t be sacked except for serious disciplinary reasons such as endangering people or hitting someone.”
The mass redundancies and sackings common in other industries have passed the railways by.
“Drivers can retire from the age of 52 (although on a reduced pension) and other staff from 57,” said Axel. “And why shouldn’t they? People work hard enough and for long enough.
“Macron’s assault is not the first attack on the rail statute. But it could be the most significant.
“He wants to implement deeper changes than other recent governments. His gamble is that he will win and this will be a big signal to others that he has broken the rail workers and can therefore beat anyone.”
Already 10 percent of SNCF workers—and 25 percent of new hires—are outside the statute. And it doesn’t guarantee an easy life. It is used as an excuse for low wages.
Macron wants to generalise and accelerate the undermining of conditions that has already taken place.
One of Macron’s excuses for the assault is an EU directive. The Fourth EU Rail Package requires all member states to put passenger rail services out to competition by 2019.
This is a reminder of the true role that the EU plays.
But Macron needs no encouragement. Having been elected as the great new “centrist” hope last year, he is enthusiastically tearing into workers, boosting military spending and making racist laws even harsher.
This programme led to major demonstrations last September, and strikes in 4,000 workplaces.
One of his key weapons is division between workers. His message is that rail workers have better conditions than others, so they must be brought down to a lower level. Teachers have more holidays than others, so they must be cut.
Oliver Besancenot of the socialist NPA party said, “If as a worker, employed, unemployed or retired, we begin to think that another worker, simply because he or she has something that we do not have, is a privileged person, then sooner or later, we will be the victim of the same kind of treatment.”
Teachers, health workers, civil service workers and others face new measures to allow huge job losses.
Until now the only job cuts put through are by not replacing workers who leave.
In addition Macron wants much wider use of temporary contracts and agency workers, and “merit pay” that individualises workers and links their wages to “results”.
The unions have to fight. The main rail union is the one affiliated to the CGT federation.
It made strong noises about calling “a month of strikes”. But it was slow to develop this into real struggle.
Together with other rail unions, it has now called for a national day of demonstrations for this Thursday, 22 March.
This was already shaping up to be a major day of resistance. Seven of the nine public sector unions have called a one-day strike against the attacks they face.
Rail activists in the CGT pressed to start strikes as soon as possible. When Axel spoke to Socialist Worker he had just come from a branch meeting which had voted to strike, not just demonstrate, on 22 March.
Local branches can call their own strikes without the national union’s permission.
This move, which was taken up by some other branches, helped push the officials to call the rail strikes from April onwards.
Workers should remember the major struggle in 2016 against Socialist Party President Hollande’s work law.
This measure prepared the way for Macron’s attacks, and saw months of strikes and protests. But eventually the CGT and other union leaders ended the fight rather than extending it.
This must not be allowed to happen again.
The 22 March fightback must be the start of something much bigger.
Workers can win big, like they have before
In 1995 rail workers played a central role in humiliating the government of prime minister Alain Juppé, who had a similar plan to Macron’s.
It was the biggest wave of strikes and protests since 1968.
William Rees-Mogg, former editor of the Times and father of Tory MP Jacob, called it “the most threatening event in Western Europe during the 1990s”.
Six months previously the French Tory government had come to power confident that it could smash union resistance.
The so-called Juppé plan involved massive welfare cutbacks.
The fightback began among students. They won significant victories and this spread to other areas.
Pressure grew on the trade union leaders to fight, and they called a day of action on 10 October.
It saw impressive strikes in the public sector and around half a million people took to the streets.
The unions were eventually pushed to call more strikes and protests on 24 November.
Not only did 800,000 join marches, but crucially activists among the rail workers were strong enough to call an all-out strike. Large parts of the country were closed down.
A few days later the rail strike spread to the Paris bus and Metro workers, and then to a minority of post, gas, electricity and telecom workers.
Daily mass meetings in the striking industries kept the battle going, and different groups of strikers began to meet in district-wide assemblies.
By the beginning of December the government was in retreat. Strikes spread. On 5 December 160,000 people joined an angry protest in Paris. The government’s anti-strike demonstration attracted 1,500.
Some 1.3 million marched across France on 7 December. Indefinite strikes continued on the rail, buses, Metro, the post and elsewhere. The government began to make concessions—and then withdrew key parts of the entire programme.
The government fell in 1997. The memory of 1995 haunts French governments. Macron must not be allowed a win that would erase it from workers’ consciousness.