Juppe sees off threat of union protests

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One year on, the movement of strikes and protests that paralysed France last winter is broken. As of this weekend, the French government has the answer to the question that has dominated its thinking since ministers returned from their summer holidays.

But the government is not out of the woods. Influential groups such as the doctors still look menacing, and a new threat lurks which may prove as deadly as renewed industrial protest: a gathering revolt against corruption in the political establishment.

This double message emerged from two days of trade union strikes and protests over the weekend to mark the first anniversary of the welfare reforms proposed by the prime minister, Alain Juppe.

The demonstrations on Saturday attracted far fewer people than even the most poorly attended last winter. In central Paris, fewer than 10,000 people mustered for a mile-long march. In Marseilles, which had been a hotbed of rebellion last winter with strikes and marches outlasting those in Paris by several weeks, only 4,000 people turned out. Only at Aurillac in the Massif Central, which stands to be severely affected by defence cuts, did the numbers approach those of last year.

Strikes called for the previous day either failed to materialise or caused only limited disruption. Local transport in Paris ran almost normally, despite a metro-drivers' strike. The national railways ran normally. Only Air France (Europe), formerly the domestic airline Air Inter, suffered serious difficulties, but the airline has been troubled ever since its merger with Air France and, in a sign of things to come, new private airlines laid on extra flights.

A banking sector strike brought out fewer than 20 per cent of the workforce, partly thanks to a government announcement that it was shelving the privatisation of one state-owned bank, CIC.

Discord among the major trade unions is one reason why the anniversary protests flopped so badly. Another is the lack of a single, specific objective now that the kernel of the welfare reform has gone through parliament and the contentious issue of pensions is off the agenda.

A further reason is the fear of losing pay and job security. Calling demonstrations on Saturdays has been one solution, but this has reduced both the turnout and the publicity.

Perhaps the main reason why this year's protests have so far had so little effect, however, is the speed with which the government has moved to pre- empt protests in individual sectors and prevent them coalescing, as they did last year, into a cross-sector movement capable of gaining public sympathy. As well as retreating on the CIC bank, the government postponed a new rail restructuring programme, and the Paris authorities gave transport workers bonuses that they would lose in the event of strikes.

It may be premature for the government to rejoice, though. The popular protest is not so much dissolving as changing, shifting away from the single target of the "Juppe plan" to something more general and potentially more damaging.

Among the placards at thedemonstration in Paris were several linking France's domestic budget difficulties with political corruption - "Corruption politique deficit" - and at least one linking the mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, who is implicated in a housing scandal, Mr Juppe, and President Jacques Chirac.

With revelations about corruption in business and political circles multiplying by the week, this cause could unite easily as many people as last year's protests, including the middle class and small business.

On Saturday the justice minister admitted that he chartered a helicopter to trace a judge holidaying in Nepal at a crucial point in a corruption investigation, with the suspicion that he wanted to influence the outcome. Since no sanction has been even mooted, the government is well on the way to being discredited. And when the widespread belief is that the minister made his "confession" only to protect the prime minister, the elite's defences are starting to fail.