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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les cheminots and the navigators

by Jean-Pierre Pierot

The French Railway Men and the English Navigators

Les cheminots et the navigators

Translated Tuesday 13 April 2010, by Alison Billington and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Up until now, the whole world envied us our railway network. Foreign travellers marvelled at our trains, which arrived as time-tabled to the nearest minute – something which was never the general rule in a number of European countries. Our high speed trains took notions of distance by storm, at their creation, at the beginning of the nineteen eighties, to the point of making air transport between Paris and Marseille laughable.

At the same time, on the other side of the Channel, Margaret Thatcher was tearing the British railways limb from limb to privatise them. The situation which we discovered in the Kenn Loach film, ‘The Navigators’ appeared unrealistic to us it was so tragic. To be honest, thanks to the skills of the French railway workers, all professions being taken into account, the railways in our country are still an exemplary public service, to which all French people are very attached.

And meanwhile the same causes produce the same effects. The poison of liberalism and the priority given to financial profitability at the expense of the common good are making themselves felt. Closure of ‘unprofitable’ lines, the sacrifice of the freight policy, repetitive breakdowns on the high speed lines that the railway men diagnosed as the consequences of the age of materials due to the lack of investments. The French railways which lost twenty thousand positions since 2002, suffer from a dearth of personnel due not to the lack of interest in the profession but to the restrictions imposed by the State.

Public opinion discovers with indignation – something which it had not really understood before – that the Minister of Finances signs cheques to reimburse part of their taxes to the eight hundred richest families in our country every year. At the same time, the government blames the economic crisis in order to axe the number of jobs in public services. Following in lock-step, the railway management wants to reduce by nearly eight thousand the number of railway workers between now and 2012. Didier Le Reste, who directs the CGT Union has clearly demanded for two thousand new jobs in 2010, and he also reproaches management for refusing a genuine negotiation on jobs, salaries, internal organization and for playing on the division between unions. It has succeeded in neutralizing the CFDT. But the railway men, on many occasions in history, have shown their courage and their determination in social combat. They carried the hopes of the entire work force to combat Juppé’s plan in 1995, to such an extent that a strike by proxy was talked of by the majority of paid workers. Today, under other conditions, their demands obviously interest all their fellow citizens, users of transport, who consider that the French railways, nationalized since 1936, must remain one of the jewels of our public sector. The strike action that they undertake today, and which could be extended if the general assemblies of personnel so decide, is to be powerful and welcomed with understanding, even with sympathy by the paid workers of the private and public sectors. They took serious action on 23 March. 800,000 demonstrators took to the streets all over France.

The public service has this peculiarity: it unites the daily life of paid workers and the public, the battle of one supporting the fight of the others, to the detriment of those who divide.

On many occasions the railway men have shown their courage and their determination in social combat.

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