France: Mysterious force for jobless rattles Jospin's coalition

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French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin will make further concessions this week to a protest movement for the unemployed which has arisen from nowhere to shake his coalition government. Around 10,000 people, mostly leftist sympathisers, marched through Paris on Saturday to demand improved benefits for the long-term jobless. Why has such a limited movement been so effective? John Lichfield reports from the French capital.

Anne Michel was in a minority in Saturday's march for the jobless: she was, herself, unemployed. A bilingual secretary, rejected because she is "too old" at 51, she lives in one room in Paris on pounds 75 a week in benefits. She was attending her first ever demonstration.

"There are 7 million people like me in France, trying to live on minimum benefits which are below the level of poverty. That is the real France," Ms Michel said. "Of all the demonstrations there have been in France in recent years, this is the first one which is truly justified."

Almost one year ago, the same disparate groups who supported Saturday's march walked down the same route on the Grands Boulevards in central Paris: the ecologists and the feminists, the Trotskyists and the anarcho-syndicalists, the gays and the anti-fascists, parading under their leftist tribal banners. On that occasion, they were marching, 100,000 strong, on behalf of illegal immigrants. On this occasion, there were far fewer - around 10,000.

In other words, this was no Germinal; this was no re-enactment of 1789, nor even of 1968. It was not even a full-dress parade of the forces of the French far left. But it was the largest turn-out so far in support of the five-week-old protest movement for the long-term unemployed which has already shaken and divided the Jospin government. There were modestly supported marches in a score of other cities.

The day was universally reported in the French media as a great success: the unemployed had refused to scatter before the Jospin government's successive salvoes of repression, flattery and largess. Beforehand, the government let it be known that it was going to make new concessions this week. In a television appearance on Thursday, Mr Jospin is expected to say that minimum social benefits will be raised next year, with, possibly, a small increase this spring. A week ago he said such increases would explode the government's entire strategy to boost growth and create jobs by holding down public spending.

Whether or not Mr Jospin will promise enough to calm the protests is unclear. The pressure groups leading the movement are now demanding, in effect, a pounds 37 a week immediate increase in all minimum payments to the long-term unemployed, the disabled, the young and the old. "It is obscene to suggest that people who have to stop eating on the 15th of the month should wait for increases until 1999," said Richard Dethyre, leader of APEIS, one of the protest groups.

There has been something mysteriously potent and yet insubstantial about the movement from the beginning. It started before Christmas with sit- ins in France's equivalent of dole offices, organised by three far-left pressure groups for the unemployed which had previously expended most of their energy quarrelling with one another. They were helped, in the far north and far south, by the unemployment committee of the Communist trade union federation, the CGT.

Of the 3 million unemployed and 1 million long-term unemployed, barely more than 2,000 people were involved in the sit-ins before the riot police, the CRS, dislodged them 10 days ago. And yet Lionel Jospin's Socialist- Communist-Green coalition government has been riven by its worst internal crisis since it came to power seven months ago; the public has been instantly and overwhelmingly sympathetic; the media, left- and right-wing, has been full of the jobless cause.

It is as if the French, for a variety of motives, some from good faith, some from bad faith, have willed the protest to be larger than it is. Political manipulation and posturing, inside and outside the Jospin coalition, account for part of the unexpected potency of the movement. Beyond that, the country seems to be haunted by its own bad social conscience.

We think of France as a country dozing in a warm bath of social protections and benefits. If you are employed - if you are inside the system - there is some truth to the image. But to be unemployed in France, especially unemployed for more than a couple of years, is to fall out of the system and to live miserably.

Unemployment benefit starts generously but diminishes over 30 months (longer if you are 50 years old or more). Once automatic rights expire, a single person receives, at most, pounds 60 a week, a couple pounds 90 a week. One in four of the unemployed - about 750,000 people - receive less than the pounds 75 a week, which is the official poverty line for a single person. (The cost of living is higher in France than in Britain: food is perhaps 20 per cent more expensive.)

If the unemployed movement had been asking for jobs, Mr Jospin could have dealt with it comfortably enough. ("Growth is picking up; we are trying to cut the working week to 35 hours; jobs are on the way.") But the movement is not asking, primarily, for jobs; it is asking the government to bring the long-term jobless inside the system, to give them a permanent political status and tolerable lives.

Any large increase in jobless benefits would destroy the government's strategy, to dash for growth, and into the euro, by squeezing public spending. The strategy runs deeply against the interventionist ideas and prejudices of large sections of the coalition, not just the Communists and Greens, but part of the Socialists themselves. Hence the divisions exposed within the government. Greens and Communists were taking part in another march - this time against the euro - in Paris yesterday.

Beyond that, the jobless movement has exposed the sham of the French claim to have a "political and social model" which avoids the excesses of Anglo-Saxon liberalism. France has trouble in creating jobs because of the burden of state spending, and state protections for the employed, not the unemployed. If the statutory minimum wage was abolished, if some of the gold-plating was removed from the welfare state, especially the health system, many tens of thousands of jobs might be created. But then, as we have seen before, the streets would genuinely be full of protesters.