French unions left in disarray

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With the return to work now in full swing across France, members of France's oldest union, the CGT, led off a bedraggled march through central Paris last night that probably marked the unions' final - and largely token - attempt to have the government's welfare reform plan withdrawn. The abolition of the plan, formulated by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, is the single demand of the trade unions that has not been granted after more than three weeks of strikes and protests

The poor turn-out last night in every city except Bordeaux, where Mr Juppe is mayor and more than 20,000 people marched, showed how little the power of the trade unions has been enhanced by the month of strikes. Although they can claim to have scuppered almost every reform proposed by Mr Juppe, except for the basic structural changes to the health and welfare system, they have emerged no more united than when the dispute began.

For although their protest was effective, they had not sought to take on the government; rather, the dispute was thrust on them by the strength of grassroots opinion in the public sector - the only sector in France where union membership is high. These were protesters in search of a leader. With the dispute waning, the unions have reverted to sectarian type.

Yesterday's Paris march, for instance, was sponsored only by the overtly left-wing CGT, not by the Force Ouvriere, which had supported all the previous protests. The bombastic leader of the FO, Marc Blondel, was suddenly quiet, working on preparations for tomorrow's "social summit" with Mr Juppe.

Mr Blondel's leadership of the protests also seems to have brought him no benefit. On Monday the head of the FO in the Paris region, Jacques Maire, said he would challenge Mr Blondel at the union's national congress in February. Mr Maire said the FO risked having its "independence compromised by the place occupied by a political sect, the [extreme-left] Workers' Party". He objected also to the fact that Mr Blondel had made common cause with the FO's old enemy, the CGT.

The leader of the third, and biggest, union, the CFDT, Nicole Notat, is in trouble with her executive for having initially suggested the Juppe plan might have positive aspects. She has periodically called for an end to the stoppages.

Nor has the return to work been as swift as expected. The rail network was only about 50 per cent at work yesterday. There was little public transport in Marseilles and Bordeaux and the bus service in Paris was operating at half-capacity. About a third of bank employees were on strike, and striking electricity workers caused sporadic power cuts in the south.