Strikers invade the runways at Orly

France at a standstill: Franc battered by eighth day of stoppages and protests against Chirac's welfare reforms

France's worst labour unrest since 1986 spread to Orly airport in Paris yesterday when 200 Air France ground personnel occupied two runways, stopping planes from landing and halting domestic and transatlantic departures. It was the first time that air traffic had been disrupted since public- sector workers and students launched a wave of strikes and demonstrations eight days ago in protest at the government's plans to reform the welfare state and curb state spending.

"France needs to work. Our economy is still convalescent. The government is determined to carry out the reforms it has announced, because it is a question of survival," the government spokesman, Alain Lamassoure, said in a statement warning that many companies would start to lay off workers if the strikes continued.

President Jacques Chirac's government must implement its austerity programme if France is to reduce its budget deficit sufficiently to meet the Maastricht treaty's conditions for joining a single European currency in 1999. French stocks and bonds slumped yesterday and the franc fell a centime to 3.4625 to the Mark as financial markets weighed the impact of the strikes on France's chances of meeting the criteria on time.

Even before dawn, the Paris region was locked in traffic jams that extended for more than 200 miles as commuters sought a way round the strikes paralysing public-transport systems. The state rail network was almost completely shut down, there were no buses or Metro services in the capital, and thousands of Parisians cycled, roller-skated and walked to work.

The social unrest turned violent on Thursday night when about 30 people were injured in clashes in Paris and the western city of Nantes between riot police and youths throwing stones and petrol bombs. The clashes broke out on the fringes of protests organised by students who are demanding more resources for underfunded, overcrowded universities.

Employees in the education and health sectors are set to join the strikes on Monday, along with tax officials, customs staff and workers in the telecommunications industry. Unions at the Bank of France have called out its 20,000 staff for a two-day strike next Thursday and Friday.

Government officials said they had no intention yet of mobilising the army to help Parisians overcome the transport strikes. During a similar crisis in 1988, the authorities used 350 army trucks to take people around the city.

With the strikes breaking out so close to Christmas, Mr Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, may be calculating that public exasperation will increase to the point where union leaders will feel compelled to call off their protests. The President has the power to dissolve the National Assembly and call a snap election or referendum on his policies, but his aides say such extreme action is unnecessary at the moment.

Government officials say that, while it may be possible to make more money available for universities, there must be no watering down of the plans announced by Mr Juppe last month for a fundamental overhaul of the social-security system. The system pays for health care, pensions and family allowances and, like the SNCF state railway network, is buried under a mountain of debt.

The government's aim is to restore order to the public finances so that the budget deficit falls to 4 per cent of Gross Domestic Product next year and 3 per cent in 1997, enabling France to qualify for European monetary union. But the government's ability to meet these targets depends on the accuracy of its predictions for economic growth, and most economists believe these are too optimistic.

The government has forecast 2.9 per cent growth this year and 2.8 per cent in 1996, but few independent economists believe that growth will exceed 2.5 per cent this year and 2 per cent in 1996. The latest strikes are certain to weaken the economy by depressing output and could even result in a contraction of GDP for the last quarter of 1995.

All this means that the government may have to announce still tougher austerity measures to meet its budget-deficit targets, a policy that runs the risk of provoking even more extensive labour unrest. "The risk remains that the austerity package will depress private spending more than expected, making deficit reduction even more difficult," said Jean-Francois Mercier, an economist at Salomon Brothers.

France's determination to meet the Maastricht conditions and launch the single currency on schedule also implies delaying an assault on unemployment, currently at 11.5 per cent. Mr Chirac won the election on a pledge to make job creation his priority, but switched course in late October to a strict diet of budgetary discipline.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us