France's seven public sector trade unions yesterday threw down a challenge to the government of Alain Juppe, announcing a one-day general strike for 10 October in protest at plans for a public sector pay-freeze next year. The strike call, the first time France's unions have acted in concert for more than a decade, came a day after the minister responsible for the public sector, Jean Puech, said he was suspending pay talks with the unions until the second half of 1996.
The prospect of labour unrest in France's 5 million-strong public sector will be a blow to the government's intentions to improve finances in 1996: public sector pay already accounts for almost 40 per cent of government spending. But it will also test the public's appetite for the economic and social reform they voted for in electing Jacques Chirac as President.
The public sector has become a touchstone for reform in France. Deregulation is required by the European Union; the French exchequer needs to cut costs. President Chirac is pledged to both. But both he and Mr Juppe were hoping to approach the subject by stealth. Instead, it was thrust into the limelight by the dismissal of Alain Madelin as economy minister last month, and has refused to go away since.
Mr Madelin's "crime" was a statement to the effect that the real opposition in France was no longer between left and right, but between the "protected" (public) sector, and the "exposed" (private) sector. He spoke of "benefits" that amounted to "privileges" and compared pension arrangements in the two sectors.
The rebuke from Mr Juppe came back sharply: "You don't solve France's problems by setting one category of French people against another category of French people."
One television programme broadcast this week offered the spectacle of normally well-mannered French people bawling at each other. The programme was a live debate entitled: "Are public sector workers privileged?" In the "yes" corner were shopkeepers, farmers, lawyers and employers. In the "no" corner were trade union officials, nurses, doctors, Telecom and railway workers.
The arguments of the private sector are that public sector workers are underworked, make life difficult for the public and have to work only 37-and-a-half years for a full pension calculated on their 10 best years of earnings. Everyone else works 40 years for a pension calculated on their average pay over 25 years.
Public sector workers retort that they are poorly paid, do the jobs others would not, and that their bonuses are not taken into account when pensions are calculated.
The problem for the government is that the views of the private sector majority cannot be translated into a mandate to curb the public sector. Although private sector workers believe the public sector has a cushy life, these views coexist with a degree of approval for the public sector. Assuming the strike goes ahead, the government cannot count on public support if it decides to take on the unions.