Le Statut des Cheminots
There has been much discussion, and much cant, in recent weeks about le statut des cheminots. Macron wants to change it. For this he has been accused by some in the unions, the media, and politics of seeking “to destroy a public service.” The reduced costs to the SNCF do not justify the move, some say, and therefore the real goal must be political: to strike at the very symbol of worker protections that define the French social model.
Explaining this to American readers poses a certain challenge. The very concept of “un statut” has no immediate translation. Perhaps “tenure” comes closest. Even in French it harks back to the ancien régime. Is the statut a kind of privilège, of the sort that were tossed on the pyre of equality on the Night of August 4, or is it more like un état, an estate or condition, afforded by birth or the acquisition of venal office? Curiously, the French, who will fight tooth and nail over “selection” for the university as an affront to equality, are perfectly content to regard the privileges accruing to the statut de cheminot as an acquis and therefore sacrosanct: privileges won in prior battle with the state and the bosses must remain inviolate forever, no matter how circumstances have changed.
Or, if the justification of the statut is not defended with such historical dramaturgy, it must be presented in functional terms: the cheminot battles the elements 24 hours a day and seven days a week to keep the trains running on time. She must spend long hours and days away from home, braving arduous conditions in dangerous situations. Etc. etc. Of course some of the personnel covered by the statut never venture farther from home than the local gare, nor do they spend their nights battling howling blizzards to keep heavy steel rails bolted to wooden ties. Some spend their shifts in front of computer screens, just like other 9-to-5ers. But they can still retire at 55.
Like tenure for a professor, the statut is a privilege. Does defending the railroad as a public service require defending this privilege? I’m not convinced. To be sure, Macron surely does intend this symbolic bras de fer with railroad workers to send a signal about his intentions with respect to reshaping the economy, just as Reagan did with the air traffic controllers. But there is a middle ground between rationalization and “destruction” of the public service, and few would deny that the SNCF is in need of rationalization. The unions need to decide what is worth defending under the new regime defined by European regulations on railway competition and revise their rhetoric accordingly, rather than pretend that the privileges of a bygone era are in the general interest here and now.