Failed reforms damage Jospin's grand ambition

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The Independent Online

Modest attempts by the French government to reform the country's state apparatus have collapsed in failure, threatening the jobs of two senior ministers and damaging the hopes of the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, to win the presidency in two years' time.

Civil service unions have forced the abandonment of plans to streamline the archaic tax-gathering methods of the finance ministry. Teachers will take to the streets tomorrow in a final effort to bury a campaign to bring more flexibility to the ponderous state education system.

The two reforms were high-profile symbols of Mr Jospin's claim to be the man capable of painlessly leading the French state into the 21st century.

The government's failures contrast with the extraordinary boom in the French economy, as the country's private sector adjusts belatedly but rapidly to the information age. As one official put it, "the French private sector is plunging ahead into the internet era while the public sector remains attached to the exercise book and India rubber".

The immediate price for failure seems likely to be paid by the Finance Minister, Christian Sautter, and, possibly, the Education Minister, Claude Allÿgre. Mr Sautter has already offered to resign, complaining that he was "humiliated" by Mr Jospin's decision on Monday night to abandon the reform of the finance ministry in the face of union threats to close down all government payments.

A large cabinet reshuffle, Mr Jospin's first in nearly three years, is now thought to be inevitable. Mr Sautter and Mr Allÿgre, both of them non-career, non-elected politicians, have been the object of whispering campaigns by fellow Socialists.

The reform of the finance ministry, proposed two years ago, was regarded as a first step towards rebuilding the French state apparatus. Mr Sautter had proposed that the ministry's several regiments of tax-gathering officials, including a permanent "treasury" staff in almost every town or large village in France, could be gradually rationalised without compulsory redundancies.

The unions blocked the reform, claiming that it would undermine the principle of "public service". The unions' exasperated critics complained that the real problem was that the reform would have damaged the institutionalised rights - and balance of power - between the unions. Mr Jospin, facing prolonged industrial action and unrest in his own Socialist-Communist-Green coalition, decided to scrap the proposals.

The education reform package remains on the table but the government has also shown signs of readiness to retreat. Mr Allégre wants to transfer more control of education, including the hiring and firing of teachers, to local education boards.

The teaching unions have decided to make his proposals a fight to the death, or at least the minister's sacking. They say that the reforms amount to a "dumbing down" of education.

The background issue once again is the institutional role of the unions themselves in running the system.