President Emmanuel Macron wants to scrap rules allowing some state rail workers to retire on a full pension up to 10 years before most other French workers.
The reform plan risks inflaming tensions with labour unions who led the biggest strikes of recent decades in 1995 against a similar proposal that the government of the time floated before abandoning it and losing power.
Macron has said his government will embark on overhauling France’s myriad pension schemes in early 2018, creating a single system for all.
The shake-up of the pension scheme tailored for the SNCF state rail group would affect nearly 200,000 employees, in particular train drivers who can retire as early as age 52, a decade before the pension age of 62.
Macron first outlined the idea in an internal SNCF publication in July. He said he wanted a draft legislation presented early in 2018 and a reform that would be effective by mid-2018 or early 2019.
Asked about the president’s plan for the SNCF’s pensions on Wednesday, government spokesman Christophe Castaner said it fell within the wider pension reform package.
“That’s the track the president wants to take,” Castaner told a weekly news briefing.
Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, was elected on a promise to push through far-reaching social and economic reforms, a programme that has drawn increasing public opposition since he took office four months ago.
His government last Thursday presented plans to ease labour regulations with only one of the three biggest unions threatening protests. But tougher tests may lie ahead, including overhauling employment insurance this autumn and then pension reforms.
In 1995, plans to abolish a pension scheme specific to SNCF workers sparked the biggest wave of street protests and public transport strikes in recent French history.
Those protests, including a three-week rail strike, ultimately led to the reform being abandoned, the resignation of then prime minister Alain Juppe and an election where voters replaced the right-wing government with a Socialist one in 1997.
Macron said on the campaign trail he wanted to smooth out the big differences between the pensions of state and private sector employees, while keeping the pension age at 62.
Beyond the SNCF, that will mean reforming the generous pensions of big state-owned companies such as utility EDF, whose unions have fiercely defended their privileges.