Militant dole protests alarm Jospin

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Protests against unemployment are gaining strength in France and alarming the government. John Lichfield in Paris reports on the growing politicisation of an underclass of three million.

The French government sought yesterday, with a bizarre mixture of praise and cash, to head off a rapidly spreading revolt by the long-term unemployed. Peaceful demonstrations in Paris and a score of provincial towns added to the pressure from a rolling programme of sit-ins at dole offices around the country.

Reversing her earlier condemnation of the protests, the employment minister Martine Aubry praised the demonstrators' "citizenship" and "commitment". She also promised the government would provide more public cash to help the semi-private agency which administers the dole in France to find extra money for "urgent cases".

The agency, Unedic, jointly run by employers and unions, was meeting last night to consider the details. The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, is expected to make a further statement today to try to calm a campaign which threatens the unity of his left-of-centre coalition government.

Up to 5,000 unemployed people and left-wing activists demonstrated outside the Unedic headquarters in Paris yesterday afternoon and then marched on the economic ministry. Similar demonstrations were held in towns all over France. The protesters, organised by pressure groups for the long- term jobless and the hard-liners of the Communist trade unions movement, are demanding higher dole and an end-of-year bonus of pounds 300.

Although the numbers involved are still relatively small, the movement has been rapidly gathering strength in the last three week and enjoys considerable public sympathy.

The Jospin government has been shaken by the protests, with green and Communist ministers supporting the demonstrators and Ms Aubry originally condemning them as "illegal". Mr Jospin has, by all accounts, persuaded Ms Aubry to take a softer line but also decided to intervene himself.

The most alarming feature of the protests from Mr Jospin's point of view is that the newly militant unemployed are not demanding work but better benefits. This runs against his government's policy of promoting growth by keeping down public spending while tinkering with the length of the working week to try to create more jobs.

Campaign leaders warned last night that they expected concrete promises from Mr Jospin today or they would "continue to extend the movement".