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Juppe offers strike leaders concessions

As public sector strikes in France entered their third week, the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, offered some key concessions last night in the continuing dispute about welfare and pensions reform.

He insisted, however, that reform had to go ahead "to save the system'', and he preserved the central principle that spending on social security would be decided in future by parliament, not, as at present, by a joint committee which includes the trade unions. He also ruled out the possibility of a referendum on the subject.

"I'm not closed to any solution, to any proposal," Mr Juppe said. "I have set the principles. Now there are all the applications to discuss, and I wish to discuss them with parliament and with the unions."

Speaking in a television interview after a two-hour emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the protest strikes that have paralysed the country for more than two weeks, Mr Juppe said he would be prepared to meet union leaders in a "summit" on welfare reform, but not until he had met all union leaders separately. He also conceded the principle of "negotiations'' with the unions, after insisting until now on such terms as "dialogue'' and "consensus-seeking".

Leaders of two major unions, Marc Blondel of the Force Ouvriere and Louis Viannet of the CGT, have called for "negotiations" at prime ministerial level, and recently called for a "summit" on social questions, something Mr Juppe had been resisting. In yesterday's interview, Mr Juppe said he would meet union leaders separately today, and would be ready for a "summit" if necessary. But he did not give the date and time commitment the FO and CGT have asked for.

Mr Juppe did, however, make two significant concessions. He said that the work of the government-appointed commission to consider public-sector pensions would be suspended, at least as far as consideration of "special regimes" pertaining to individual sectors were concerned. Fear that their special arrangements would be abolished has been a major element in the strikes.

His second concession was to allow extra time for railwaymen to discuss the contentious restructuring plan for the state railway company, SNCF.

On Thursday, Mr Juppe announced the appointment of a special mediator to consider the restructuring plan, which was to have been signed this week. Having previously agreed to postpone the signing until after the SNCF 1996 budget is finalised (in another week), Mr Juppe now has conceded that extra time will be needed for talks, effectively suspending the restructuring plan which appeared to threaten unprofitable branchlines, and jobs.

Mr Juppe has, however, stuck to the basic principles of welfare reform and the controversial means of passing them through parliament. He announced to the National Assembly that enabling legislation for welfare reform would be passed as votes of confidence in the government.

The opposition Socialists and Communists, who account for barely 20 per cent of seats in the assembly, have managed to slow passage of the legislation for almost a week on points of order. They were angered by Mr Juppe's decision to table the main points of the legislation in the form of "edicts" - tantamount to a "guillotine" process. Now, each motion will be tabled as a confidence vote. The Socialists immediately responded by tabling a censure motion - their second in a week - against the government.

As wrangling continued, leaders of the FO and CGT yesterday issued new calls to their members to prepare for tomorrow's planned day of nationwide protest. Yesterday saw further big protest marches in several provincial cities.

Today, railways and much urban public transport, as well as schools and many government offices are expected to be idle as the strikes continue.