France gets set for new union clash

Mary Dejevsky in Paris asks whether the concessions made by Alain Juppe will be enough to appease the workers
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The Independent Online
THE period between Christmas and New Year is known in France as the sweet-makers' truce, a time when feasting takes over from politics. This year the term seemed especially appropriate, as the strikes and protests of November and December produced a rash of government concessions that led eventually to a truce, sealed at the Prime Minister's "social summit" with union leaders and employers on the Friday before Christmas.

Now, with public transport in most of France back to normal, the trains running again, the shops reopened after the New Year holiday and the tills ringing as they singularly failed to do before Christmas, it is easy to forget the scale of last year's unrest and the depth of the discontent it revealed. But the truce is no more than a truce, and the calm is deceptive.

Some of the labour unrest has persisted long after the main transport strikes ended. Marseilles' first buses for four weeks ran on Thursday after police took over three of the city's bus depots. Transport in the city is still only sporadic. At the other end of the country, the postal sorting office in Caen is only just functioning again, after an on-off agreement over Christmas. One line of the Paris suburban rail network is still disrupted.

Where the strikes have ended, the question of retrospective pay for the strikers has become a new bone of contention. Despite the firm words of the government spokesman, Alain Lamassoure, in the early stages of the strikes - "the whole point about being on strike is that you do not get paid" - the problem has in fact been delegated to sector and regional management.

As an observer in the pro-Chirac Figaro newspaper said: "Many of our readers are indignant about strikers getting paid, and they are right - in principle. But can France afford a new round of strikes? The answer is obviously not." That is the reality that ministers know they must face. Polls show, moreover, that public opinion still favours the strikers over the government.

The political balance remains very delicate. In his New Year television address, President Chirac's conciliatory tone and calls for more consultation and dialogue, primarily from the government, were well received, including by the more militant trade union leaders. But the unions remain deeply suspicious of the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe. They do not believe he will honour Mr Chirac's promises of consultation; they are aware, too, of the limits of what they have won.

As during the strikes, the running on the part of the unions has been made by Marc Blondel, leader of the Force Ouvriere. He emerged from Mr Juppe's "social summit" dissatisfied, having won effectively nothing from that meeting except the fact that it had taken place and the promise of more meetings. The central welfare reform - including the transfer of overall responsibility for health and welfare spending from a union-chaired committee to parliament, and restrictions on doctors and hospital budgets - remains in place.

The unions won many other battles in the name of individual sectors. They sent the railways restructuring plan (a mini-Beeching) back to the drawing-board. They preserved the early retirement and special pension arrangements of railway, transport and many other public-sector workers intact, and they saw off a committee set up to review all public-sector pension arrangements. They also forced the postponement for at least a year of a far-reaching fiscal reform that would have rationalised tax rates and abolished the tax "discounts" applying to many salaried workers.

But these were all concessions made consciously, albeit with bad grace, by Mr Juppe for the sole purpose of preserving the welfare reform - which he did. The last procedural and constitutional obstacles to the reform were removed just before New Year, and the reforms are set to pass through parliament this month, "after consultation" with the unions and other groups.

The battleground has now shifted. It looks unlikely that public-sector workers will strike to block the welfare reform itself. Its structural and technical nature makes it difficult to present as a cause now that the elements of pensions and conditions have been stripped away. The new battles will be with doctors and hospital staff over spending restrictions - which could entail emotive charges of "British-style rationing" - and with the likes of Mr Blondel, much of whose real power will be dissipated once the committee he chairs ceases to control welfare spending. Much depends on the sensitivity with which the government proceeds, and whether it will be prepared to leave some of the soon-to-be-redundant welfare structures in place for a while to prevent new strikes over job losses.

Whatever route Mr Juppe chooses, it will be much more expensive, and its contribution to cutting France's budget deficit, and preparing France for EMU membership, will be more modest than he hoped when he first introduced his reforms, long, long ago last November.