Comfort for Jospin as crowds fail to turn up at Paris unemployed protest

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The Independent Online
A few thousand people marched through Paris yesterday to demand better benefits for the unemployed. There were equally poor turn-outs in other French cities, a setback for a movement which has shaken the French government in recent weeks. John Lichfield joined the marchers.

They had captured the sympathy of the French public and the attention of the media. They had provoked nasty cracks in the French centre-left government.

The leaders of the month-old protest movement of the unemployed had to prove yesterday that they had, for the first time, stirred the massed ranks of the French jobless themselves.

On the whole they failed. Another attempt will be made on Saturday but the momentum may have been lost by then. In Paris, the police counted 4,500 demonstrators and this, for once, seemed a generous figure. The Communist trade-union federation, the CGT, counted 10,000 but this was pure propaganda.

There were some genuinely unemployed people in the Paris march, which passed, ironically, through some of the wealthiest parts of the capital. But the general impression was of a 1968 veterans' association reunion, a gathering of the standard tribes of the French activist left: the hard- line Communists, the anarchists, the gays, and the greens. Demonstrations called in other French cities were equally unconvincing: only 200 in St Etienne, a centre of high unemployment; only 500 in Toulouse.

There was a bigger crowd of 6,000 in Marseilles but, given the 3,000,000 unemployed people in France, the figures were not impressive.

The protesters were calling, amongst other things, for an immediate increase in the minimum social payments of around pounds 200 a month made to the young or long-term unemployed.

Last week the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, set up a pounds 100m fund for people in acute difficulties but then sent the police to break up a score of sit-ins in dole offices around the country.

Yesterday's demonstrations were meant to take the protests on to a new phase.

Richard Dethyre, leader of one of the three main unemployed pressure groups involved, put on a brave face.

"We are seeing the start of something important, the unemployed standing up, for the first time, to insist that their dignity must be respected too."

But others were clearly disappointed by the turn-out. An unemployed waiter, Hamo Kaci, 35, living on pounds 55 a week in minimum social benefits, said: "The problem is it's difficult to motivate the unemployed to come to a march like this. Either they'd rather use the time to look for a job or they've already sunk - and I know the the feeling myself - into a kind of isolation and depression."