Jobless issue rocks French coalition

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The spectre of high unemployment has caught up with France's Socialist-led coalition government. A nationwide campaign by militant, jobless groups has provoked widespread public sympathy - and open squabbles between ministers. A demonstration is planned in Paris today.

France has suffered high unemployment for 15 years but, until now, the unemployed themselves have remained mostly silent.

Demonstrations and sit-ins by militant groups representing the 1 million long-term unemployed have changed all that. Seventeen employment insurance offices around the country, one minister's constituency headquarters and several government offices in Paris remained occupied last night.

The campaign has struck Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government at its most vulnerable and sensitive point: its unfulfilled promise to do something about the stubbornly high unemployment rate (12.3 per cent). The protesters' tactics and demands (including a steep increase in unemployment pay and a pounds 300 Christmas bonus for the jobless) have produced public quarrels within the Socialist-Communist-Green coalition which has been running France since June. The deputy prime minister and employment minister, Martine Aubry, said the occupations were "illegal". The Green leader, Dominique Voynet, and the Communist leader, Robert Hue, described them as "understandable" and "legitimate".

The more moderate unions have accused the Communist-aligned CGT of fomenting the protests. Nicole Notat, leader of the CFDT union federation, who is also president of Unedic, the quango which runs unemployment insurance, said the protesters were politically motivated "agitators" who were "manipulating the distress" of the real unemployed.

There is some evidence that the actions have been co-ordinated by the hard-line wing of the Communist Party, and the CGT.But the three militant groups involved have attracted the support of genuinely unemployed people. Polls have also suggested that almost two-thirds of French people sympathise with the protesters.

A nationwide day of action, including a demonstration in Paris, has been called today to coincide with a meeting of Unedic. The agency is expected to make some form of conciliatory gesture but is unlikely to meet the protesters' demands, which would force an increase in the already steep insurance payments made by employers and those who do have work.