France offers civil servants pay rise in bid for EU vote

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The Independent Online

The French government has offered inflation-linked wage rises to more than five million public employees in an attempt to buy a "yes" vote in the referendum on the EU constitution.

The French government has offered inflation-linked wage rises to more than five million public employees in an attempt to buy a "yes" vote in the referendum on the EU constitution.

The offer, reversing pledges of rigour in state spending, is the latest attempt by the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin to sugar the public mood before the nation votes on 29 May.

Two further opinion polls, published yesterday, suggested that 54 per cent or 53 per cent of French voters were ready to reject the European constitution and plunge both the EU and French politics into crisis. The likely "no" voters were heavily concentrated on the French left and were among public sector employees.

Farmers are also threatening to reject the treaty, despite generous funding from the EU agriculture policy for four decades. Last week, the Prime Minister went to the annual conference of the French farmers' federation and offered €100m (£69m) to give livestock farmers 10 days of paid holiday a year.

President Jacques Chirac, meanwhile, went to the EU summit in Brussels to appeal for a "social Europe", and to ceremonially slay the dragon of a proposed new directive on free European trade in services.

Last month, Paris suspended plans to introduce continuous assessment into the baccalauréat (equivalent of A-levels) in an attempt to calm unrest among pupils and teachers.

All of these measures go against the grain of the prospectus originally announced by M. Raffarin's centre-right government in 2002. President Chirac said he wanted a "reforming government" which would have the courage to over-ride sectional interests and roll back the state.

The public spending spree, based on a small increase in tax revenue, also flies in the face of France's promise to reduce its public spending deficit which has bust the limit imposed on countries within the eurozone in each of the past three years.

President Chirac and M. Raffarin believe that the surge in the "no" vote has been generated by domestic gloom rather than a fundamental shift in attitudes towards Europe.

Renaud Dutreil, the Minister for Public Service, met union leaders to increase his offer of a 1 per cent pay rise for civil servants to 1.8 per cent - the rate of inflation - this year. Negotiations were continuing last night.

The 5.2 million employees covered by the talks amount to one in five of all people in paid work in France. Whether a more generous pay increase will be enough to change their mood, and the mood of the French left, is uncertain.

Despite a clear vote in favour of the EU constitution in an internal party referendum in December, most supporters of the Parti Socialiste now say they are against the treaty. In part, they wish to deliver a protest vote against the government.

Many, however, have rejected the pro-treaty position of their own party leaders and virtually every other centre-left party in the EU. They have, instead, accepted the arguments of the extreme left that the EU constitution is an ultra-capitalist blueprint for the destruction of French jobs and public services.

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