Heat on the streets for Juppe

FRANCE I CRISIS : As Paris ground to a halt, Sarah Helm joined the prot esters on the boulevards
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"Juppe out, Juppe out," shouted the hospital workers. "United we stand, united we win," screamed the banners of the postal workers and the police. "No to the freeze," shouted the teachers and "No to privatisation" declared the banner of the electricians.

The train drivers and the Metro drivers shouted: "Chirac, you kill us." And all across the city traffic ground to a halt as public servants took to the streets in the biggest demonstration seen in France for nearly 10 years.

Disgust at President Jacques Chirac's Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who plans a public sector pay freeze next year, was clear. Workers carried posters of a "frozen" Mr Juppe, with icicles hanging from his nose and ears. "Juppe, nous vous rechaufferons" - Juppe, we will heat you up, said the banners.

But the outrage which spilled on to the streets yesterday was fuelled by more than simply concern over pay. Strikers emphasised their fears for the future, and questioned changes coming from Brussels which could force privatisation and bring in cheaper workers from other European countries.

France's public service workers were being "sacrificed", they claimed, for the sake of reducing the French budget deficit in time for monetary union.

"Money for salaries, not for nuclear tests," chanted the unions as they progressed down the Boulevard Beaumarchais.

"We are all Europeans," said Jean-Paul Dondero, a technician in a geriatric hospital, who was marching in a line of white coats. "There are not enough doctors and nurses to care for the elderly. The Europe we want is not like this."

He added: "If Chirac wanted to save money he should spend less on defence. He should sell public buildings."

As the traffic jams built up, several onlookers scoffed at the public service workers, considered by many in France as privileged employees with jobs for life.

"It is disgusting, all of this," said Robert Marcol, a taxi driver, who complained it had taken him one hour to drive just a mile. "These are the most privileged people in France - they have job security, unlike any of us. Why should they have a pay rise every year? These are just the Socialists trying to bring down Chirac, but it is 10 years of their socialism which has left our coffers empty. We need Mrs Thatcher."

A waiter serving tourists who were trying to enjoy the capital's Indian summer agreed. "Why should they expect to have pay rises? I have had no rise for 12 years. These civil servants - they sit on their arses all day and do nothing but complain." But the strikers knew yesterday that they had opinion polls on their side. A steel band lent the demonstration a carnival atmosphere.

The discordant sounds of a trade union chant, sung to the tunes of Edith Piaf, pealed over the rooftops. "It seems that we earn too much. It seems that we are not wanted," the singer jibed, and the marchers yelped with delight.

The question on everybody's mind yesterday was what Mr Chirac would do next, now he had dared to take on the "vertebral column" of the French workforce, as Liberation newspaper put it yesterday.

It was certainly a column of angry malcontents, whose warnings the President of five months will find it difficult to ignore.