Juppe appoints mediator to placate striking railmen

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The French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, yesterday announced the appointment of a mediator for the national railway company, SNCF, in the hope of placating railwaymen worried about a restructuring plan and ending the two-week strike that has paralysed rail transport in France.

The mediator is Jean Matteoli, aged 74, who was a minister in the 1979- 81 government of Raymond Barre. Described as a "left-minded Gaullist", Mr Matteoli has advised successive French governments on economic and social matters and is a supporter of conciliation. He was widely praised for his softly softly slimming down of the French coal industry in the Seventies.

The moderate CFDT union welcomed his appointment, and even the Force Ouvriere (FO) and the CGT, who have been most hostile to any compromise in their opposition to welfare reforms, said they were prepared to meet him. His brief is to consider all aspects of the railways restructuring plan prepared by the SNCF management.

The appointment of Mr Matteoli, a lawyer who chairs the Economic and Social Council, a consultative body, appeared to be the latest attempt by the government to meet what it sees as peripheral concerns among different groups of strikers, while keeping its contested welfare reforms intact. The railwaymen have been at the forefront of national protests against welfare reform. But their determination has been reinforced by objections to a new restructuring plan, designed to reduce SNCF's big operating losses, that could entail cuts in jobs, funding and services.

Mr Juppe had been scheduled to accompany President Jacques Chirac to the Franco-German summit in Baden-Baden yesterday, but remained in Paris in view of the continuing social and industrial unrest. Teachers and junior civil servants joined the strikes for the first time yesterday, and most schools were closed. Domestic and foreign flights experienced serious disruption as airline staff went on strike; workers blocked the entrance to the main passenger terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport, and police used tear gas at the other main Paris airport, Orly, to disperse protesters occupying the runways. Teachers, airline staff and civil servants say they will continue their strike today.

Railwaymen, for their part, blocked the track at the Gare du Nord in Paris for only the second time since their strike began, reducing the number of Eurostar train departures to London. This action, on the same day as the first airline strike, seemed designed to cut France off completely: the Eurostar and the Calais-Dover shuttle have been the only trains working in any part of France since the rail strike started.

The FO and the CGT had called for another day of national protest, the second this week, in the hope of pressing home the huge turnouts achieved in Tuesday's demonstrations. The response, however, was mixed, with the initiative appearing to pass from Paris to the provinces.

Up to 50,000 people marched through the streets of Marseilles and Toulouse, and the police - who tend to err on the side of caution - gave a figure of 30,000 for Bordeaux, the city where Mr Juppe is mayor. These same cities were also without all forms of public transport. In Paris, however, where public transport has been non-existent for more than a week, the turnout was about half that of Tuesday's more than 50,000 marchers, even with the participation of large numbers of schoolchildren.

Nor has the strike spread into the private sector, as the unions have been hoping. The vast majority of those on strike and demonstrating yesterday were still from the public sector.

Despite this, the mood on the streets - even in Paris, where the lack of public transport has created particular problems for commuters and businesses - still seems tolerant. A remarkable sense of solidarity prevails, which seems only to increase from day to day, along with a heroic determination among those still working to get there at almost any cost to their purse and their dignity. The far from young can be seen on antique rollerskates, and eminently respectable ladies in their 50s and 60s hold up placards to hitch lifts to the suburbs.

For business, though, the news is bad. Tourists are few and far between.