Juppe firm as strike deepens

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

As post and telecommunications staff threatened to join the week-old national transport strike, and tax and bank workers said they would come out today, the French government broke its silence yesterday to insist that it intended to stand firm, despite the growing difficulties facing private-sector employees and business.

In the first of what he said would be daily briefings, spokesman Alain Lamassoure said the government was 'calm, determined and always open to dialogue' and would 'explain, explain and explain again', but would not backtrack on the social security reforms at the root of the current protests.

Mr Lamassoure, who was appointed in the recent cabinet reshuffle, was speaking as gas and electricity workers marched through nearby streets to add their voice to the general protest against possible changes in their pension arrangements.

The demonstrators, numbering several thousand, had originally planned to protest against deregulation requirements set by the European Union, but decided to join the two issues. Later in the day, students held a separate demonstration, to drive home their protest against overcrowding, poor facilities and lack of money in the universities.

Meanwhile, the franc was affected by the unrest for the first time, falling slightly against the German mark.

In calling a press conference yesterday, at only 90 minutes' notice, Mr Lamassoure was making the first official statement of Alain Juppe's government since the beginning of the current crisis. Aside from the government's "firmness", Mr Lamassoure offered several other messages, all apparently intended to reassure unions and public sector workers about the government's plans.

He said there was no intention to alter the "special pension arrangements" of individual groups of public sector employees, insisting that the government's only concern was "fairness" - that equal contributions should bring workers equal pension rights.

In less conciliatory terms, however, he accused striking unions of "sabotaging" the "battle against unemployment, which is this government's first priority". Disturbingly for the international markets, he thus reverted to President Chirac's original priority (jobs), rather than his new "absolute priority" of cutting the budget deficit. This might have had something to do with the fact that official figures published yesterday showed that unemployment rose by 0.3 per cent in October, the third consecutive monthly rise.

Despite Mr Lamassoure's concern to scotch rumours and stress the government's readiness to talk, there was no sign yesterday that the striking workers would be amenable to persuasion. Union leaders, who are divided on what to do next - and have been strangely quiet all this week - seem to have lost all ability to direct the strike, which has taken on its own momentum.

Frustration, meanwhile, is building up on all sides. Three policemen were injured when striking workers tried to storm the town hall in of Nantes and there were scuffles in Paris when gas and electricity workers tried to approach the National Assembly building. Shopkeepers are complaining of lost business. One survey suggested trade in city centre shops was 40 per cent down since the start of the strike

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