France drifts into winter of discontent

Students think it's 1968. Some evoke 1789. Mary Dejevsky in Paris goes to the roots of an upheaval that just grew
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The Independent Online
DO YOU remember the three-day week in Britain of the early 1970s - when the rubbish wasn't collected, the dead weren't buried, factories worked short hours, and you read by candlelight because coal wasn't reaching the power stations? Well, in France, we are fast approaching the nil-day week.

The country is, as headlines reminded us all week, paralysee. There have been next to no national railway services - passenger or freight - for 10 days. Many cities, including Paris, have been without any form of public transport except for an occasional bus.

Most state schools have been shut or operating short hours, as have museums and galleries. The power workers who struck for a day last week plan further action this week. More than half of all postal sorting offices across France are idle, telecommunications workers (the state-owned France Telecom) are expected to stop work tomorrow, as are hospital workers (but not doctors), tax clerks and staff at the Bank of France.

The airlines, Air France and Air Inter, which are among the few remaining lifelines, plan to strike on Thursday. Ground staff blocked the runways at Orly airport on Friday for two hours as a foretaste.

Then there are the students. Arguably, they helped to begin the action five weeks ago, when a protest against shortages of teachers, premises and funds at Rouen university spread across the country. Now the universities are in ferment: either on strike or suffering regular disruption.

Now, almost two weeks after the first national student march and 10 days after the first trade union-sponsored demonstration through Paris, the strike has grown into a vast movement - and is still growing. To the silent horror of ministers who remember 1968, students are marching alongside train drivers, and the prospect of a general strike comes ever closer.

This being France, many "real"essentials are still in place: rubbish is being collected; the dead are being buried; baguettes are still being baked - Parisians have been assured that lorries are standing by to bring flour from Le Havre should the rail strike persist - and power workers have not yet resorted to blackouts. But life is worse, by far, people concur, than during the pre-Christmas strikes of 1986 when, coincidentally, the prime minister was Jacques Chirac.

The 1995 protest seemed to emerge suddenly, not quite out of nowhere, but from a collection of disparate worries which coalesced early last week into a vast and swelling movement. The groups of strikers have their own sectional worries, plus a bigger concern - the threat public sector workers see to their pensions from the government's plans to bring health and social security spending under control. In tackling a disparity in the qualification period for a full pension between public and private sector employees, the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, knew he was taking a risk. It was a risk Edouard Balladur had declined to take two years before, when, as prime minister, he extended the contributions record required for a full pension from 37.5 years to 40 years in the private sector alone. It was a risk Mr Juppe himself had appeared unwilling to take as recently as August when he sacked his Economy Minister, Alain Madelin, for raising the question at all. But the current strikes are not just about pensions, or even about special terms and conditions. Students object to poor facilities and fear unemployment after graduation. Railway workers fear a restructuring and cost-cutting plan that will regionalise and probably close many branchlines by the year 2000.

Gas, electricity, post and telecoms workers fear job losses and insecurity from deregulation and possibly privatisation to conform to European legislation. Hospital workers fear a health service reform which could introduce a contract system similar to the NHS reforms in Britain. The airlines are in the middle of a painful restructuring programme of their own. The union leaders, for their part, fear that Mr Juppe's reform of the social security system will cut them out of the management structure and divest them of much of their power.

Although these separate fears have been simmering for weeks, even months, nobody in authority seems to have anticipated their combined force. Not the unions - who remain divided and unable to mount a single, united demonstration; not the Opposition Socialists and Communists, whose support for the protests has been lukewarm at best and televised interventions non-existent, and certainly not the government.

Mr Juppe, having survived the autumn return to college without student unrest, and a week after the social security announcement without spontaneous street protests, appears to have thought he had got away with it. Ten days ago, he was confident enough to quip to a provincial newspaper that "if 2 million people come on to the streets, that will be the end of the government."

There have been nothing like that many on the streets so far, but the country is at a standstill and Mr Juppe and his government give the distinct impression that they don't know what to do. Even if they are deliberately doing nothing in the hope that consumer pressure will force strikers back to work, their presentation leaves much to be desired. Since suggesting at a public event on Monday that he would go on television "in a day or two", Mr Juppe has said nothing.

His No 2 in government, the Justice Minister, Jacques Toubon, is in Washington. President Chirac is in West Africa until Tuesday. It has been left to individual ministers and government spokesman Alain Lamassoure to hold the line on radio and television. But the litany of "we will proceed with the reforms ... necessary to save the social security system ... we have no plans to dismantle anything ... we are open to dialogue with everyone and anyone" has lacked conviction - and results.

Their difficulty is that the protest has taken on a life of its own. As one French commentator said at the end of last week: "This is a new kind of protest: it's not really a movement. It has no strong idea, no single line, and no symbolic leader. It's a mixture of unequal and heterogeneous protests, and it is spreading like stain on a napkin ... without really knowing where it is going."

It may not know where it is going, but there is an identifiable cause: the general climate of crossness, frustration and insecurity, which derives partly from the election promises (jobs and growth) broken by Mr Chirac; partly from his slowness to embark on reform, and partly from fear of what reform might mean. Although their precise interests may differ, everyone is worried.

So although the strike has thrown into relief the two distinct groups identified by Mr Madelin in August - "the protected"of the public sector who have been on strike, and "the exposed" of the private sector who have battled heroically into work, there is remarkably little animosity between them.

The Gaullist party, the RPR, (of which Mr Juppe is nominally head), has tried in recent days to mobilise "consumer" opposition, with signal failure. Around 65 per cent of French people (more than double the number who work in the private sector) say they support the strikers. A sociologist has called it "transferred anger" - with private-sector workers regarding the public sector as "shock troops" for their own discontent.

Traffic jams in and around Paris have run into hundreds of kilometres; people have hired cars, mopeds and bicycles at their own expense to get to work. A clearing-house to match drivers and passengers has been set up in the national computerised directory, Minitel, on private initiative. The pavements are full of immaculately dressed pedestrians, many with maps of streets they have never walked before, trying to get to work, or home again.

And despite the vast inconvenience - imagine London without any public transport - tempers have largely been kept. The occasional taxi driver swears at "bloody strikers"; someone may mention Brussels and deregulation. But mostly there is no culprit and no blame; the protest has acquired an elemental quality - it is beyond rational explanation, but understood.

The enormity of the situation was summed up by one of France's leading Gaullist commentators, Franz-Olivier Giesbert: "Is France having a nervous breakdown?" he asked at the end of last week, and answered:

"From time to time in history, in 1789, 1830, 1848 and even 1968, France has thrown everything out with the bathwater. This was its way of fleeing reform, and reality. It is called a revolution. Today, the situation is not revolutionary, but Mr Juppe's government is certainly poised on a razor's-edge. All the bad fairies seem to be dancing around him at the same time: the students think they are in 1968, the public servants think they are in 1936, meanwhile the franc falls and unemployment rises ..."

Mr Giesbert's closing message was: "Dare to reform!" But the problem for Mr Chirac and Mr Juppe is that one half of France thinks they have already dared too much, while the other half thinks, rightly, that they have barely started. In election speeches last spring, Mr Chirac said that, for him, politics was not the "art of the possible", but the "art of making possible what is necessary". He may find that it is the art of the possible after all.