Striking a blow against Europe

France's crisis is at a crucial stage, and may even jeopardise monetary union,
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The Independent Online
The French take themselves seriously. But we take the French even more seriously. There are strikes and demonstrations in Paris and the French say it is 1968 all over again: the movement of students and workers that shook the prestigious figure of Charles de Gaulle.

But we go one better. We start talking about 1789. We start remembering phrases such as "the French are a civilised people with a tendency to revolution". And we proudly assume the role of the Duc de Liancourt in conversation with Louis XVI, in July 1789:

"Why," says the King, "this is a revolt."

"No, Sire," replies Liancourt, "this is a revolution."

What has happened in France is simple enough; it would lead to upsets in any country. There was the presidential election, which ended in May with the victory of Jacques Chirac on the back of a multitude of promises, sayingthat he was going to end unemployment and create a just and equitable society (and, by the way, happening to mention a likely reduction of taxes). Then there is the position of the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe. After some six months of hesitations, disagreements among ministers and scandals, Juppe announced a series of reforms to reduce government expenditure, above all in the social security, health and welfare systems. Everyone will have to pay more and many will receive less. At the same time, pensions will be made uniform and state employees will lose certain privileges. The measures strike at two of the most valued areas of French society: medical care and secure jobs with excellent retirement provision. Tackling all these problems in one go was both confusing and brutal. And two more reforms loom: fiscal reform and a law dealing with the homeless and the indigent poor.

The government can be criticised for doing this all at once without proper explanation or preparation. But it was also unlucky in so far as this programme coincided with the renewal of the state's contract with the railway system, so that the railwaymen were not only worried about welfare and pensions, they were also worried about their future. The railways are heavily in debt and undoubtedly lines will be closed, the subsidy will be reduced and jobs will be lost. It was also unfortunate for the government that its programme coincided with the start of the academic year and a renewal of student unrest over shortages of teaching staff and the inadequacies of accommodation. Students of some 40 universities, in some cases supported by the teaching staff, have been striking, demonstrating and clashing with the police.

The roots of the crisis remain Chirac's easy promises and Juppe's desire to do everything at once. The combination of the two could only lead to anger and disputes. And the atmosphere surrounding this government has not been seen for many years. During his 14 years as president, Francois Mitterrand always insisted on people's social rights. When there was a strike, during the first cohabitation, when the Socialist president had to work with a right-wing prime minister (in fact, Chirac), Mitterrand received the strikers at his official residence in the South on New Year's Day, and they had a convivial drink together. After the Socialist defeat in the parliamentary elections of 1993, the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, avoided clashes and withdraw legislation if it seemed likely to cause undue protest. Thus this government's aggression is new. This is probably one reason why some 60 per cent of people supposedly back the strikers.

The coming week will be vital. The unions want to extend the strike and the demonstrations. The Communist Confederation Generale du Travail, now 100 years old, is holding its annual conference. Its rival Force Ouvriere, led by the publicity-conscious Marc Blondel, who claims that he has been let down by the government, yesterday called for a general strike.

The government will try to organise ways of getting round the strikes, providing coaches andboats for the beleaguered populations of the Ile de France. It is probable that either Chirac or Juppe will appear on television. But after this, negotiations will have to take place.

The government has several advantages, particularly as public support for the strikers will not last. As Christmas approaches, both strikers and the public will grow tired of it all. And the government should be able to divide the strikers. The strength of this movement has been its variety as it took in different sectors of employment. But this is also its weakness. It should be possible to come to an agreement with the railway workers. It will not be difficult to isolate the students, with their claims for a massive investment of capital and the creation of a great many jobs.

If the government could make some gesture on social security, then this could win over much of the public. But this will be the most delicate issue. If Juppe has not prepared some avenue for a partial retreat, it will be difficult to make one. However, a baffling display of statistics and technicalities on this question could disarm protest.

There are some fall-back positions. Alain Madelin, the free-market economics minister who was dismissed by Juppe, has already proposed that there should be an election. But the government knows that there is the danger of a Socialist revival, particularly with Jacques Delors's apparent return to political activity.

Another possibility, in extremis, would be to change the Prime Minister. (There is a rumour that Chirac could recall Raymond Barre, Giscard d'Estaing's former prime minister.) There could be a referendum on some of the reforms, but this would present real difficulties if the government were to lose.

The ultimate resource of the government is to justify the insistence on reducing the spending deficit. It must make these cuts if it is going to be part of the European Monetary System, due to start on 1 January 1999. Chirac, firm in the knowledge that there will be no single European currency without France, can, in these circumstances, ask for a revision of the conditions laid down by the Maastricht treaty. Or, it is rumoured, he may come to an agreement with Britain and abandon the single monetary system.

Europe's future, and the future of a single currency, could also be jeopardised if the present economic crisis means the franc drops in value, or if, in order to stimulate trade and cut unemployment (which is growing), Chirac decides to abandon his policy of the strong franc.

Whatever happens, Chirac and others are determined to show that the European Union depends upon France. And, whatever else happens, we are right to take the French seriously.

The writer is Professor Emeritus of French history at the University of London.