Juppe under threat from renewed protest

France in revolt: Demonstrators march in record numbers, dashing hopes that strikes are losing momentum

The escalating conflict between the French government and public sector employees over welfare reform reached a new stage yesterday, with majorFrench cities witnessing some of their biggest mass demonstrations since the war and the prime minister, Alain Juppe, insisting in parliament that his reforms would proceed because there was no alternative.

Summing up for the government in the second censure debate brought by the Socialist opposition in a week, Mr Juppe said that the reforms would go ahead, "gradually and with consensus", and would not be withdrawn.

Mr Juppe was speaking at the end of a day when more than one million people had taken to the streets of France in a huge protest called by two of the major public sector unions, the Force Ouvriere and the CGT. The demonstration, the seventh in two months, was by far the biggest so far and brought together employees from every part of France's diverse public sector: from railwaymen and staff of public utilities to hospital workers and teachers.

In Marseille, more than100,000 turned out around the old port; in the naval port of Toulon, the arsenal was blockaded for several hours; all road entrances to the cathedral city of Chartres were manned by pickets; and the channel ports of Le Havre and Dieppe were blockaded.

In Paris, where an estimated 110,000 people marched, tens of thousands of demonstrators were still waiting to leave the starting point, at Place de la Republique, when the leaders had already arrived at Nation, three kilometres away.

In scenes replete with revolutionary images, the dense column of marchers, often shrouded in smoke from hundreds of bright pink flares, wheeled slowly around the Bastille monument. Waving brightly coloured banners and balloons, they chanted, blew horns, beat drums and periodically burst out in folk tunes with anti-Juppe lyrics, or snatches of the Internationale.

People living in flats overlooking nearby streets encouraged those waiting to set off with notices stuck in their windows announcing (with some hyperbole) the huge turnouts elsewhere: "Marseille: 200,000; Rouen and Toulouse: 80,000; Bordeaux (where Mr Juppe is mayor): 40,000. Paris - how many?"

The enormous protests, whose numbers appeared to be totally unanticipated by the police, came after a weekend in which Mr Juppe had made concession after concession to meet objections raised by individual sectors, but refused absolutely to dilute the core of his welfare reforms.

Presented by Mr Juppe in the National Assembly on 15 November, the reforms switch overall responsibility for the health and social security system to parliament (from a joint council on which trade unions are represented) and are intended to cut a deficit which is currently running at more than 60bn francs a years.

They are part of an overall effort by President Chirac and Mr Juppe to cut France's budget deficit to ensure that it qualifies to join the single European currency in 1999, but also to modernise France's public sector and make it conform to European legislation.

The size of yesterday's demonstrations was variously interpreted as a last glorious gesture by the unions before they agree to settle - a view ruled out absolutely by the leader of the CGT, Louis Viannet, or as a real threat not just to welfare reform but to Mr Juppe's survival as prime minister.

While some trade union officials say they believe Mr Juppe's concessions are significant, rank and file opinion in the public sector seems singularly unmoved - an aspect which the government is likely to find worrying in a protest where the running has been made more by ordinary union members than their leaders. France has been without any national rail service now for almost three weeks, and Paris has been without all forms of public transport for almost as long.

So far, Mr Juppe has tried to deal separately with the most militant sectors and the most emotive issues. He appointed a mediator to discuss a contentious restructuring plan for the railways, suspended a commission to consider special public sector pension arrangements, and agreed to meet union representatives personally.

On Monday he agreed to the "social summit" demanded by the unions - but says that it will discuss employment policy generally, as well as public service pay and conditions. But this immediately provoked howls of rage from employers' representatives, who warned it will extending the dispute into the private sector.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn