France marches to save welfare

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The Independent Online
MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

As the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, put the finishing touches to his controversial reform of the social-security system yesterday, tens of thousands of people - rallied by the main trade unions - marched through the streets of the country's larger cities calling for the system to be saved.

The reform, to be presented to parliament today, is designed to bring the system - currently running up an annual deficit of more than 60bn francs (pounds 8bn) - back into balance in 1997.

One of the biggest demonstrations was in Paris last night, where thousands of striking public- sector workers carried giant banners saying "Hands Off Our Secu", the popular term for the health and social benefits system, to the National Assembly building. Although public transport was less affected by the strike than had been feared, many offices and public buildings were closed for the day.

In Bordeaux, where Mr Juppe is mayor, more than 10,000 people demonstrated, some with banners calling on the Prime Minister to resign.

Yesterday's protests came against a background of increasing unrest. Air France cabin staff have been on partial strike since last week, pressing for improved pay and the restoration of previous conditions of service.

An all-out strike and sit-in by students at the university of Rouen has been followed this week by strikes in four other major universities: Metz, Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence and Orleans. They are protesting about shortages of staff and resources.

The young unemployed of the suburban estates are also restive. Incidents of joy-riding, arson and stoning of police and emergency workers have been reported almost every night for the past six weeks from somewhere in France.

Yesterday, a new and damaging split emerged on the political right in the argument on reform. The Gaullist RPR party, of which Mr Juppe is titular head, held a special meeting to try to minimise divisions when the social security reforms are put to a government vote of confidence later today.

At the meeting, the former prime minister, Edouard Balladur, and his supporters - who have argued that spending cuts, not increases in workers' and employers' contributions, were the answer to the deficit - were called upon to show "more reserve and cohesion". Mr Balladur reportedly responded that he claimed the same "right to freedom of expression as the trade unions have".

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