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

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor