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Juppe defiant on welfare reforms

France in revolt: Government holds to tough stance but says change will be made by consensus
The 12-day-old crisis in France came to a head yesterday with demonstrations across the country, the extension of public sector strikes into the private sector, and the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, refusing to withdraw his welfare reforms.

In a television broadcast last night, his first public statement since the protests began, Mr Juppe said: "I will tell you straight: I will not withdraw the welfare reforms, because that would be a mistake." Looking relaxed but determined, he expressed sympathy with both commuters and strikers, the first for the transport difficulties they have faced in recent days, the second for "the hard decision" they had taken to go on strike and sacrifice their pay. He stressed that every step of the reforms would be taken "by consensus".

At the end of his 15-minute broadcast, however, he had given not an inch, either on the planned reforms to the welfare system, or on the special commission set up to consider public sector pension arrangements. The trade unions and public sector workers have called for the withdrawal of both. Earlier, in the National Assembly, he accused the opposition of "lying" about government intentions.

In his three appearances yesterday, including a preparatory meeting with MPs from the Gaullist-led coalition, Mr Juppe did clarify the distinction between structural reforms of the welfare system and the special pension rights of different branches of the public sector, which include early retirement deals for train drivers and miners. These, he said, would be considered separately and with a completely open mind. Public- sector workers feared their rights would be abolished by a government commission set up to consider how public and private sector pension arrangements could be made fairer.

Mr Juppe also appeared to offer another olive branch, saying the government would postpone a major element of a tax reform planned for 1996.

It is unclear whether this combination of determination, "consensus" and economic home truths will succeed in convincing the non-striking majority in France and help to defuse the popular protests, which over the past week have become highly personalised. Mr Juppe's resignation was demanded yesterday by 50,000 people in Paris and crowds of almost equal size in several dozen other French cities.

The demonstrations were accompanied by minor incidents: in Narbonne and Pontoise cars drove into the marches, injuring two demonstrators. And there were scuffles in Paris, Nancy and Montpellier, when some demonstrators smashed shop windows and overturned cars.

Meanwhile there was no end in sight to the nationwide transport strike which has brought public transport to a standstill across much of the country. Other strikes continued to gather support; most state schools were closed, and the southern city of Arles became the first place to experience power cuts. One source of consolation for the government - and the first sign in the past week that they might have a chance of victory - was the sharp diminution, by two-thirds, of the traffic jams on roads into Paris in the rush hours, although some of the drop would have been due to people simply staying at home.