Europe: Jospin bid to ease benefits crisis

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The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, is expected today to promise short-term and long-term improvements to benefits for the jobless in an attempt to halt a spreading campaign of protest by the long-term unemployed.

Mr Jospin was last night meeting leaders of the protest movement, which has begun to threaten the credibility and unity of the Socialist-Green- Communist coalition which has governed France since June.

Earlier, the Prime Minister sternly reminded ministers at a cabinet meeting that they were not free agents but part of a collegial government. In the last few days, Communist and Green ministers have publicly supported the protesters, while the Socialist employment minister, Martine Aubry, has de scribed their rolling occupations of dole offices, which began three weeks ago, as "illegal".

After a series of "confessional" meetings with union and employers' leaders yesterday afternoon, Mr Jospin was seeing leaders of the groups behind the protest movement at the prime ministerial residence, the Matignon Palace, last night. Mr Jospin's office said that he would make a statement on the protests today, but insisted that last night's meetings were "consultations and not negotiations".

The protestors' demands are fluid, and tend to alter from region to region. But the central requests include a pounds 300 end-of-year bonus, an improvement in the unemployment pay of the 1,200,000 long-term unemployed, and more emergency help for people in acute difficulties. Mr Jospin is expected today to offer more public money to help the insolvent, unemployment insurance agency meet the last demand. He may also offer longer-term reforms of the system to give more help to unemployed people to re-train for new jobs.

Whether or not this will be enough to satisfy the protesters is unclear. Mr Jospin is evidently hoping that kind words, and his own reputation for plain-dealing, may bridge the gap. In a clear rebuke to Ms Aubry, Mr Jospin has altered government rhetoric in the last two days from the confrontational to the soothing. His office said the protests had "exposed inadequacies in our system system for dealing with acute problems in a society made fragile by unemployment".