Are SNCF and the French government planning a back-door privatisation of rail system?

An internal SNFC document seen by French magazine Le Parisien suggests that the company, which owns the national network’s trains and track, is considering making changes to the company’s share rules that could open the door to a future privatisation.

The document revealed the minutes of a meeting between SNCF executives and officials from the Ministry of Transport. The proposal put forward by the company would allow shares in SCNF to be traded, which is not possible at present.

Fabien Villedieu, an official with the SUD-Rail union, told Le Parisien: "Nothing will prevent management from selling shares in SNCF Mobilités [the company that runs the trains] or SNCF Réseau [which manages the track]."

"In concrete terms, this paves the way for a privatisation of the company, whereas for weeks the government and the management have been telling us that its reform plan does not involve privatisation."

The French government has responded that there is no possibility of privatisation. President Macron, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Elisabeth Borne, the transport minister, and Guillaume Pepy, the president of the SNCF, have all denied that any privatisation is being contemplated.

SNCF has said that the remark in the minutes only applied to special cases, such as cross-border lines or CDG Express. "In no case does this concern regional markets."

Service on SNCF is presently being disrupted by a series of strikes, called to dispute the government’s plans to reform the network. On strike days, only one in five intercity trains are running; for the Paris RER system, about one in three trains are in operation.  

The rail unions are fighting a proposed government reform that would phase out SNCF’s passenger rail monopoly, starting with competition on high-speed lines in 2020, and make it easier for management to dismiss workers or make them redundant.

The crucial change, however, is to make SNCF a joint-stock company. The government has sought to reassure the French public and the SNCF’s cheminots that the public sector will retain 100% of the shares, unions fear that it will give a future governments a quick and easy way to privatise the company.

The national assembly has taken approved the reform bill. It is now before the senate, which will vote on it in early June.

Image: Ticket machines in Limoges station. As many as four out of five trains are not running on strike days (Join Us in France)

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