French Senate approves SNCF overhaul, cementing Emmanuel Macron's rail reforms

French President Emmanuel Macron's controversial reform package for the country's state rail operator was overwhelmingly approved by the country's Senate on Thursday.

The vote was seen by many as a crucial victory for the centrist president over the country's powerful unions, and could pave the way for further public sector reforms.

The Senate voted 245 to 82 in favor of the reforms, after Macron's bill won a large majority in the lower house, the National Assembly, on Wednesday.

Under the new reforms, the loss-making rail operator SNCF will become a private joint-stock company with the French government as its single shareholder, following the example of Germany's Deutsche Bahn. The new bill will also see new rail recruits no longer receive civil-servant status starting in 2020, denying them job guarantees and the right to retire with full benefits aged 58.

"The law has been passed definitively, and it will be applied," Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said. The government was now preparing to hold further talks on issues including a new labor agreement for rail workers, she added.

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The changes come just as the EU's public transport operators are preparing to open up to competition.

Macron stands up to unions

Macron's successful reform bill marks a significant blow for France's labor unions, which had tried to force the government to back down by calling for three months of rolling strikes — the longest industrial actions in over 30 years.

However, 30 days of strike action have done little to sway the French public, who had reckoned with mass delays and cancellations on two out of every five days. Polls showed that the majority of French voters actually back Macron's plans.

The walkouts, which began in April, are estimated to have cost the French economy some €400 million ($470 million), according to SNCF.

Read more: Emmanuel Macron — French savior or tormentor?

However, union leaders refused to concede victory, insisting the rolling strikes would continue until at least June 28 as planned.

The French government did agree to meet one of the unions' demands by taking on €35 billion of SNCF's €55 billion debt

Macron's success in holding firm against the rail unions is likely to pave the way for other reform pledges he announced during his presidential campaign, including overhauls of the pension system and France's massive public sector.

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dm/msh (AFP, AP, dpa)