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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine