France today faces a nationwide shut-down of public services and transport as six of the country's seven major trade unions stage a 24-hour strike against government plans to reform the health and social security system. The strike comes three days after a national student protest brought more than 100,000 on to the streets and conjures up visions of a winter of discontent that could sorely test the resolve of President Jacques Chirac.
Early yesterday evening, air, sea and rail transport was already winding down across France. Today, no more than 20 per cent of services are guaranteed. Schools, hospitals, benefit offices, town halls, gas and electricity boards will all be affected, if not shut down altogether. There will be no national newspapers.
The strike was called last week after the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, set out sweeping measures to overhaul the social security system, including a new tax designed to pay off the system's accumulated debt and an end to some of the fiscal advantages enjoyed by public sector employees.
Although trade union membership in France is low by European standards, it is high in the public sector, and most forecasts suggested that today's strike would be well supported.
Workers, whether unionised or not, see their right to a full pension after 37.5 years (compared with 40 years in the private sector) and certain tax advantages threatened. Because average pay in the public sector is low, they fear that their living standards will be disproportionately affected by a new tax designed to pay off the social security system's debt as well as by the taxation of benefits.
Almost every branch of the public sector also has its own grievance. Railway workers are awaiting details of a deficit- cutting plan expected to reduce branch lines, and staff. Hospitals face spending limits; the airlines want productivity improvements. All face a pay freeze in 1996. The social security reforms are the final straw.
Union leaders have their own reason to fear the reforms. They currently sit on the joint council - with employers' and doctors' representatives - which manages the social security system. Mr Juppe's proposals would deprive them of much of this power, transferring to parliament the right to set the budget and oversee its spending.
Opposition to increased taxation and fear of any change, especially in something as cherished in France as the health and social security system, extends well beyond the public sector. An opinion poll published yesterday found that 54 per cent of those asked supported the strike, and 64 per cent would support a general strike.
All these considerations argue for a strong turnout today, but it may not be sustainable. Private sector employees and small business resent what many see as feather-bedding in the public sector.
Moreover, the unions themselves are divided. The second largest union, the FO (Force Ouvriere), which supported the public sector strike on 10 October, is not taking part in today's action, having called its own strike for next Tuesday. And Nicole Notat, the fiery leader of the largest union, the CFDT, is facing a revolt from her executive over her apparent acceptance - initially - of some of Mr Juppe's proposals.
The difficulty for President Chirac is to judge how far today's strike is a one-off expression of anger orchestrated by unions worried about their power and supported by a privileged section of workers, and how far it reflects a deeper - and more dangerous - public discontent.
The French connection
Nine of 12 London-Paris Eurostar trains are expected to run and 10 in the return direction. Although cross-Channel ferries could be disrupted, those operated by British companies should be unaffected. The Shuttle is unaffected, but there will be no Motorail services. Air France says long-haul flights will operate normally, but only 20 per cent of short-haul flights can be guaranteed. The internal Air Inter flights are expected to be badly hit. Disruption on the high-speed train network will be extensive. In Paris, only 20 per cent of tube trains and buses are expected to run.