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Strikers take battle over cuts to streets

The chanting, flare-throwing, hotdog-eating carnival that is a French workers' protest returned to the streets of major cities yesterday, as the public sector turned out in force to protest against low pay and job cuts.

In Paris, where up to 50,000 people filed through the streets during a six-hour protest, there was a strong sense of deja vu and hopeful excitement that the movement which so nearly toppled the government last year, might yet succeed. There were high turnouts, too, in Strasbourg, Marseille and Toulouse, the cities that experienced the most unrest last winter.

If the public-sector unions claimed a victory with this show of support for their first concerted protest of the season, however, government ministers also claimed success. Although the numbers of demonstrators rivalled the biggest rallies of last autumn, the proportion of public-sector workers on strike was said to be lower than on 10 October 1995, the first big strike day of last year.

First government estimates were that 32 per cent of civil servants were on strike yesterday, not including post and telecommunications workers. International and domestic flights were badly affected; as were the railways, with barely one in three services running, even though SNCF said that only 35 per cent of workers were on strike. The first Eurostar train of the day between Paris and London was also prevented from leaving in a symbolic gesture that was not repeated during the day.

On the other hand, local transport in Paris, which was completely halted during last year's strikes, continued to operate, with underground trains and buses operating between 50 and 80 per cent of services. Many schools were closed, however, as between 40 and 65 per cent of teachers stayed away.

The encouragement that both sides could draw from yesterday's first major stand-off of 1996 - the unions' continuing ability to mobilise large numbers of people, and the limited effect of the strikes - left the balance of power no clearer. What is clear is that the emphasis haspassed from heavy industry to service workers.

The demands, too, have changed. The government will be relieved that blanket calls for the Prime Minister's welfare-reform plan to be scrapped are now muted. Opposition to hospital closures, low pay, teacher-shortages, and, above all, "job insecurity", is uppermost. While specific demands serve to divide the separate groups, the deep overall dissatisfaction that exists leaves the government with the problem of divining what, if anything, will bring peace.

The government may also find it more difficult to find an interlocutor this year. The splits between the big three unions have deepened. The pro-Communist CGT union, led by Louis Viannet, is back in the ascendant, after its limelight was stolen last year by Marc Blondel of the Force Ouvriere. Mr Blondel, a fiery orator and trained barrister, was arguably a more dangerous enemy for the government than Mr Viannet.

But it is Nicole Notat, the moderate leader of the biggest union, the CFDT, who has emerged as the favoured interlocutor of the government and employers. For this very reason, though, she was booed and jostled when she joined other union leaders at yesterday's Paris march. This hostility from union activists could mean that any deal negotiated by Ms Notat would simply be ignored.