French see a glimmer at end of the tunnel

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The Independent Online


France started to emerge from hibernation yesterday as isolated sections of the transport network creaked hesitantly into gear after the three- week shutdown. The first high-speed train left Lille and by afternoon half the Paris Metro and suburban railway lines were operating a limited service. The occasional bus could be seen amid the still-clogged cars and the sun shone after almost a week of gloom.

But if the mood on the streets had lightened and there was the first real hope of a return to normal life, the political conflict between the government and the public sector was far from over. Even before the return to work was fully under way, more battles loomed, any one of which could damage the chances of industrial peace.

The two big unions that have led the strikes, the Force Ouvriere and the CGT, confirmed plans for more national street demonstrations today to insist on total withdrawal of the government's plan for welfare reform. The incipient return to work, already spreading, and the proximity of Christmas mean marches will probably be a gesture rather than a real threat to the government, but they still have potential to cause trouble.

The government is facing unexpected procedural difficulties getting its welfare-reform legislation through parliament, despite its 80-per- cent majority; the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, may not be able to get the laws through by Christmas, as he had hoped.

The most immediate dispute has erupted over the "social summit" - a round-table of ministers, trade-union and employers' representatives that was demanded by the unions as part of any settlement. Mr Juppe's decision, announced last Sunday, to hold such a summit was regarded by unions as a key government concession. But they did not look carefully enough at the small print.

What Mr Juppe has offered is a "jobs summit" on issues of lesser concern to the unions, such as job creation and cutting working hours, rather than on welfare reform and pensions. The unions have realised in addition that the planned date - Thursday - is the penultimate working day before Christmas, leaving them little time to act if they do not like the outcome. Belatedly, they want the meeting brought forward and "broadened". Employers' organisations may not even turn up: they fear an unsatisfactory discussion could spread the public-sector disputes into the private sector, and want the whole thing called off.

This dispute adds to doubts about what the public sector has won from the protests. Mr Juppe says he has abandoned plans for any changes in public-sector pension arrangements, suspended the restructuring plan for the railways - sacrificing in the process the head of SNCF, Jean Bergougnoux, who resigned yesterday - and agreed to the contentious "summit". But what is to stop him bringing all the proposals back by a different route once they are back at work? On Thursday the Industry Minister, Franck Borotra, said the SNCF plan had not been abandoned.

So far as the transport strikes are concerned, however, the end is in sight. After three weeks of uncharacteristic restraint, drivers were sounding their horns again in Paris yesterday. But the strikes have left their mark.

Yesterday the Metro seemed to be in a time-warp. The walls were plastered with the same advertisements as three weeks ago, the dates of the promotions and special offers long since past.

Those who tried to push their familiar green tickets into the machines were thwarted, because they were switched off: travel was free. "The least they could do," muttered one woman, "after all we've been through."

Passengers, at first few and far between, sometimes cheered as the train came into view. In the carriages, it was apparent how three weeks of enforced walking has changed the city's elegant urban-dress codes. The resumption of the Metro had caught Parisians, still in the country jackets and trainers which had gradually replaced their cashmere coats and court shoes, by surprise.