Strikes test French unions' might

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The Independent Online
France's powerful public sector trade unions are staging a one- day strike today that will be closely watched as an indicator of the likely strength of anti-government protest this winter. For the public, the strike is a chance to rehearse techniques perfected during the disruption of last winter: walking to work, car-sharing or a premature start to the weekend.

For the trade unions and the government the day of action is a make- or-break affair. If it is well supported, the protest could escalate to the point where it threatens the survival of the government and the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe. If support is lacklustre, the unions will have to curb their ambitions and the government will quietly proceed with the next stage of its plans to reform the welfare system and pare public spending.

The odds are hard to call. Opinion polls show the public anticipates a large measure of disruption this winter - 87 per cent said they expected widespread strikes - and is generally pessimistic about economic prospects. Workers in sectors hardest hit by spending cuts, defence sector employees and doctors, are angry and militant.

The government has played its cards more cannily than last year. It formally lifted the freeze on public sector pay just before the new round of negotiations began and reduced its estimates of job losses. The two main triggers for last year's strikes - the railway restructuring plan and the inclusion of public sector pension arrangements in welfare reform - were both abandoned last year. The railways are now subject to a gentler reform plan; the plan to standardise pension arrangements has not been revived.

The core of the welfare reform has been retained, but its initial financial effects impinge mainly on doctors. They are prominent in this year's protests, but their protest alone will not disrupt the country.

On paper, at least, today's action will affect most of the public sector. The national and regional railways as well as much urban transport have announced their intention to strike. Most social security offices and government services will be closed. Air traffic controllers have called a partial strike. Gas and electricity workers are to strike, along with some dockyard employees. Many schools could be closed, and unionised doctors will provide an emergency service only.