We don't need to reach deep into the entrails of the French haulage business to note this is a dispute with a past. Both the workforce and the employers are split into separate and to some extent rival representative bodies - the architecture of French industrial relations is pitifully unmodern. This is by no means the first great disruption by drivers in recent times. Yet the first, in 1984, saw the drivers agreeing to be used by the employers as a battering ram against the left-of-centre government headed by Pierre Beregovoy. During the most recent dispute, a year ago, the right was in power under Alain Juppe and it suited the socialist and other opposition parties - themselves now in power - to lend support to the drivers. It does seem the formula that settled that dispute has been deliberately sabotaged by some of the employers - which helps explain why the French are being so uncharacteristically stoical about the dispute, with opinion, so far, tending to the drivers' side.
All that, however, is beside the point. In an economy fit for the 21st century there have to be better ways of resolving disputes than barriers with spikes across roads: the real problem is the anachronistic nature of industrial relations and the failure of the French left to contemplate its relationship with the unions. This is not a matter of our preaching from some lofty height. There is a case to be made - we have made it - that the Thatcherite reforms of industrial relations law may have gone too far in altering the balance between employers and employees. But we stand firm behind that core Thatcherite reform, the abolition of secondary picketing. What we are seeing on the approach to the Calais port is precisely that: the unacceptable use of industrial power to coerce third parties.
And where is the famed authority of the French state, with its Compagnies Republicaines de Securite, its Gendarmerie Nationale, its army, its cult of Bonaparte, who came to power having let the street blockers of his day have that famous whiff of grapeshot? The French government was asked by its neighbours at least to maintain certain safe corridors through the country. So far its response has been to order the destruction of barriers on the Pont du Rhin in Strasbourg and on the Spanish border at Biriatou. This is not enough. Police action at the Dunkirk and other refineries show what can be done. The Jospin government has to do what it takes to settle the dispute - it possesses (unlike modern British governments) extensive powers to intervene and impose agreements.
It is important to understand why Tony Blair and colleagues have a right to demand such action when they meet at the Anglo-French summit in a couple of days. It has nothing to do with that peculiar sentiment of mutual condescension which perfumes relations between our two countries. It has to do, instead, with the prospect and possibilities of Europe. Much is made, in discussions about EMU, about how powers are being relinquished to a non-elected (and non-political?) body in the European Central Bank. Less is made of how the success of EMU depends critically on the strength of domestic governments - to maintain fiscal rectitude, to sort out massive pensions overhang, to carry forward the liberalisation of markets, especially labour markets, that will have to occur if a single currency is to work. This is not about imposing Anglo-American models on the Continent. It is a sheer matter of fact: without greater flexibility in markets, the adjustments a single currency will demand cannot take place.
What does or does not happen on the boulevards and the autoroutes this week is thus a test, a very important test, of the capacity of national governments to play their part in Europe. The French government has to understand that and accordingly hang tough.Reuse content