Protests throw Juppe off balance

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The Independent Online
With much of the country's transport at a standstill, schools closed, many universities on strike and postal and other services crippled for the second time in a week, the French government yesterday held a series of emergency meetings to consider its response to a wave of unrest for which it was largely unprepared.

The protests, which have a variety of causes, have coalesced against the plans of the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, to reform the health and social security system, and attained a strength that has surprised even the most militant of trade union leaders.

Yesterday's day of protest was called by France's second-largest union, the Force Ouvriere, as a direct response to the social security reforms, and involved mainly public sector workers objecting to likely cuts in their pension rights. It followed the nationwide strikes and demonstrations called last Friday by France's six other large unions, and a national student protest a week ago.

Yesterday, members of other unions, including the CGT, with members concentrated in France Telecom and other public services, joined the FO in strikes and street protests, and helped to swell the planned march through the Latin Quarter of Paris to more than 40,000. What remained of severely curtailed public transport was brought to a halt.

While this march was slightly less well supported than Friday's turnout of up to 50,000 in Paris and thousands more in other big cities, yesterday was the first real working day to be affected by strike action - on Friday, many people simply took the day off and began their weekend early - and the disruption was considerable.

With almost no suburban trains running and the national railways on strike for the fifth day running (over a restructuring plan), queues of 30 to 40km built up on many approach roads to Paris. The inner ring road was completely blocked from 7.30am.

One bus company set up services between Paris and some large cities, including Lyon and Bordeaux, an unusual initiative in a country where long-distance buses are few and far between. Cross-channel ferry services were again disrupted as French crews on the Calais-Dover route went on strike.

So far, government ministers have made no specific comment on the protests, stressing only their determination to proceed with the planned reforms. Yesterday the government spokesman, Alain Lamassoure, said that it was "out of the question for the government to retreat". "The desire for reform, its orientation and timetable", he said, "were unalterable".

The only slight chink in the government's armour was a clearly authorised offer from the Transport Minister, Bernard Pons, to the railwaymen, promising an additional grant to repay a proportion of the railway's accumulated debt next year. As the railwaymen's representatives began another round of talks with managers last night, however, they professed themselves unimpressed by the offer and were already planning further strikes for today.

While the government's attitude to the widespread stoppages appears to be to do nothing, a decision to wait and see need not necessarily be a sign of confusion. It could be a reasonable policy option. As Franz-Olivier Giesbert, editorial director of the pro-Chirac Figaro daily said yesterday, the government's position, and Mr Juppe's own, may not be as weak as it seems at first sight.

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