Juppe fails to break deadlock over strikes

Stephen Jessel Paris
Tuesday 12 December 1995 00:02 GMT

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Little progress towards ending 18 days of strike chaos emerged yesterday from Alain Juppe's talks with leaders of France's main trade union organisations.

"There is no way out of the crisis for the moment," said Louis Viannet, head of the CGT federation, which includes many railwaymen who have spearheaded the strikes, after meeting the Prime Minister.

Expanding on offers he made in a television interview on Sunday, Mr Juppe said he was willing to widen talks with the unions to cover the issue of employment, including jobs for the young, improving working conditions and reducing working hours. He said the Labour Minister, Jacques Barrot, was setting up the new round of talks for next week. But Mr Juppe insisted there was no question of withdrawing his plan to reform social security. These proposals are to be introduced by decree, though the opposition will bring forward a censure motion in the National Assembly today, in a vain attempt to halt that process.

Marc Blondel, leader of the Force Ouvriere grouping and one of the most bitter critics of Mr Juppe's plan to reform the social security system, said before his meeting with the Prime Minister that he was optimistic.

Afterwards he said that he thought Mr Juppe was open to eventual negotiation but was counting on the strikes losing momentum. Mr Blondel said the fixing of a date for talks would be "the cherry on the cake". The sooner there were "global negotiations, the sooner there would be a global peace", he added. FO had dropped its demand that Mr Juppe abandon his reform plans, announced on 15 November, before any talks could take place.

Mr Juppe's series of meetings included one with Jean Gandois, the head of the employers' federation, the CNP.

During Sunday's interview Mr Juppe announced concessions largely aimed at the railwaymen. These included the indefinite withdrawal of a new agreement between the state and the railway system that unions say would have entailed line closures and job losses; a reaffirmation of the existing pension arrangements for drivers, and the suspension of a committee set up to look at special pension arrangements for certain categories of workers.

According to the government, the strikes are starting to fray at the edges. It said that 3.5 per cent of public sector workers were on strike compared with 18. 5 per cent at the end of last week. In the education sector, 19 per cent of staff were on strike. Paris and many other big cities are still affected by public transport strikes. The Paris Metro and suburban RER systems were closed and only one bus in 20 was running. Huge traffic jams again built up in and around the city.

Toulouse, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyons, Rennes and Avignon were also hit in varying degrees. The railway system remained paralysed and postal services were again disrupted, even though the proportion of strikers was said to have fallen from 6 per cent last week to 4 per cent yesterday. The CGT and FO, as well as a teachers' group, have called another day of action and demonstrations for today, and no newspapers are expected to appear.

If the government needed a reminder of its unpopularity it came in the form of by-election reverses over the weekend. The government held only two of the seven seats being contested. Four of the remaining five went to the Socialists and the fifth to another left-wing party, the Movement of Citizens.

The loss of three of the five seats to the left had been predicted, but the results in the other two districts was a surprise. In one, President Jacques Chirac had won 61 per cent of the vote in the presidential election in May.

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