`Week of action' fails to rouse the French

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With headlines dominated by snowstorms in the Midi, hurricane-force winds in the west and bad economic news from Germany, France's big development of the week - perhaps of the winter - passed almost unremarked. A planned ``national week of action'' by public-sector trade unions, those that in December had the country in thrall and the government suing for peace, has had not the slightest impact.

With less than 48 hours to run, the ``week of action'' looks like a dismal failure - except that no one is prepared to say so, least of all ministers, lest they upset the truce on welfare reform achieved over the past six weeks. And although opinion polls indicate 51 per cent of people still oppose the reforms (even in diluted form), signs are that the government has drawn the sting of trade-union protests: any repetition of the November- December strikes looks unlikely.

The ``week of action'', scheduled to run from last Monday through tomorrow, has seen no strikes or stoppages and few of the promised debates and meetings. There remains only a series of marches today and tomorrow, the biggest planned for central Paris tomorrow. The decision to hold them at the weekend appeared to reflect the reluctance of workers to sacrifice yet another day's pay.

Most of the main players, moreover, will be absent. The union leaders who walked shoulder-to-shoulder ahead of the huge marches last year have said they will not be turning out. Louis Viannet, head of the CGT, who announced the week of protest last month, yesterday became the latest to announce his absence. He gave no explanation but said other top union members would be present.

Marc Blondel, head of the Force Ouvriere and the other dominant figure in last year's protests, had earlier dissociated himself from the ``week of action''. He faces re-election as leader in three months' time and has become the first FO chief to face an opposing candidate. The opposition accuses him of mishandling the protest against welfare reform and pandering to union militants.

The contrast between this week's ``non-action'' and the explosion of November and December could hardly be sharper. Then, Paris, Bordeaux and Marseilles were paralysed by public-transport strikes. The national rail network was at a standstill. Traditional revolutionary haunts in Paris were regularly halted by marchers . The message from union leaders was one of no compromise: ``Withdraw the welfare reform plan' or else."

Now, everyone is back at work, the streets are empty of protesters and internal rows rage in several big unions over tactics to be adopted in future. The noises from the union camp in the direction of the government are generally quieter and more conciliatory. Even Mr Viannet acknowledges that the ``social movement'', as he calls it, will ``have to develop'' and will take ``different forms from those of December''.

The shock wave from that protest, he said last week, ``can still be felt ... but the movement of December will not necessarily or automatically be repeated''. He has now switched his attention from opposing welfare reform to cutting working hours. This, he told a radio interviewer yesterday, was ``the question of questions''.