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opposition in a week, Mr Juppe said that the reforms would go ahead, "gradually and with consensus", and would not be withdrawn.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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most