WORLD

THE WELFARE WAR

Protests over deep spending cuts paralyze France

BRUCE WALLACE IN FRANCE December 18 1995
WORLD

THE WELFARE WAR

Protests over deep spending cuts paralyze France

BRUCE WALLACE IN FRANCE December 18 1995

THE WELFARE WAR

WORLD

Protests over deep spending cuts paralyze France

BRUCE WALLACE IN FRANCE

ON ASSIGNMENT

In this season of misery and discontent in Paris, an exhibition of Robert Doisneau’s photographs in the city’s old aristocratic Le Marais quarter offers a gallery of happier memories. In the six decades he spent photographing Paris from the 1930s until his

death in 1994, Doisneau helped etch the impression of the French capital as a romantic, if occasionally bittersweet, city that never sleeps. Doisneau’s Paris became the Paris of the imagination, a blackand-white portfolio of bicycles and bistros, where lovers snatch kisses in front of city hall and gangs of children with scuffed knees and thick socks playfully show off their poses at curbside.

But there is, of course, another Paris, one that is not up for sale as a postcard or poster art. This is the Paris in the grip of striking students

and workers, where thousands of whistle-blowing marchers clog the city’s famous avenues to the deafening backbeat of sticks pounding out protest on the lids of tin drums. That image— call it the Paris of the pavement—was vividly on display last week, with the most crippling

strikes in a generation paralyzing the capital and several other French cities. Angered by Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s announcement of sweeping budget cuts to try to control France’s $86-billion deficit, the students and government workers responded with a time-honored tactic: they took to the streets with cries of “ras le bol” (“totally fed up”).

Undeterred by December’s chill, tens of thousands of jeering marchers tromped up tony Boulevard Haussmann past the Paris Opera one day, chanting demands for Juppé’s resignation. Phosphorescent

ETIENNE DE MALGLAIVE/AP

red flares marked their route, the smoke rising to mix with swirling snow in the late-afternoon light to give the hazy impression of a wintry Napoleonic battlefield. The march ended four hours later with bonfires of blazing placards at a public square, where a band of about 200 selfstyled anarchists flipped cars into barricades and challenged riot police to a rumble. But if Parisian youths are skilled at the mechanics of rioting, the police are equally practised in how to end them. A shower of tear gas scattered the street warriors, who faded into the night throwing rocks through storefront windows of “la bourgeoisie.”

There may not be full-blown revolution in the sharp air, but France is giving the Western world a whiff of just how much upheaval can accompany the kind of budget cutting that all overextended governments face. It is a historic confrontation, says Oxford professor Theodore Zeldin, a respected historian of modern France, “where the whole welfare state that has been built over the last 50 years is being challenged to its core.” The “Juppé Plan,” as it is known, aims to drastically cut France’s runaway deficit by attacking the generous system of social security payments. He has levied new taxes. He plans to cap health-care spending, which currently has no fixed limit, and wants to control costs by rolling the multitude of publicly financed medical plans into one national system.

Juppé’s ambitious cutbacks also included a vow to cut underused routes on the huge network of state railways. He further angered the 2.2-million-strong public sector by insisting that its employees would now have to work for 40 years—matching the private sector—rather than the current 37 1/2 years before collecting a pension. The move was part of Juppé’s attack on the “privileges” of public workers, and the government used the example of pampered train drivers to make its point: railway and subway drivers now retire at age 50, a concession dating from the era when drivers also had to shovel coal into noxious burners.

“France has to choose between change and decline,” Juppé told the nation in a televised address last week, but his words did not soothe the anger. ‘These are not privileges,” said 40-yearold railway employee Dominique Carré with hoarse conviction as he marched through Paris. “They are benefits, which we won through struggle after struggle over the years.

This is what makes us different from AngloSaxon countries where business and profits are everything. It is our identity. It is what makes us France.” So, up to one-third of public-sector workers downed tools. The trains, subways and buses stayed in their garages, mail was not delivered, many teachers did not teach, and hospital and gas workers were enlisted in the attempt to bring the country’s economy to its knees. The most visible result was more chaos than usual on French roads, especially in Paris where tempers frayed and what passes for driver etiquette broke down. Many commuters found it faster to walk or bike to work, while sales of Rollerblades soared.

But the remarkable thing was the high popular support for the walkouts, despite the hardships and discomforts they spelled for French citizens. One poll showed 62 per cent backing the strikers. The conservative daily Le Figaro, in turn, trumpeted its own poll that showed 51 per cent urging the government not to withdraw its planned reforms. But that left 40 per cent fully behind the strikers, and half of the respondents told Le Figaro’s pollsters that it was legitimate for train and subway drivers to retire at age 50. “Our social protections have a long history,” said writer and philosopher Gilles Tiberghien, sitting in his Paris apartment. “It is the spinal cord of France that is under attack.”

For many observers, the lack of support for Juppé’s tough measures reflected a deep pessimism in the ability of the conservative government to deal with France’s economic troubles. Since their election last May, Juppé and French President Jacques Chirac have stumbled repeatedly, and slumped in the polls to record low levels. “People feel that they have been betrayed because Chirac made a lot of promises that he has not kept,” says Maurice Levy, chairman of Publicis, one of France’s largest advertising agencies.

Levy sat in on meetings with Chirac during the presidential campaign, and remembers advisers warning him that his rosy promises of lower taxes, a reduced deficit and job creation to attack France’s nearly 12-per-cent unemployment were incompatible. “Chirac insisted that he could do it, but everyone told him the economic realities made his plans impossible,” recalls Levy. “Governments have mismanaged the country for years, pushing aside problems of pension reform and unemployment reform for so long that now we have no choice but to solve everything at once.” Indeed, the strikers may have taken courage from the knowledge that recent French governments have shown no stomach to stick with unpopular reforms once protesters took to the streets. The previous government of Edouard Balladur talked reform but capitulated each time it faced organized resistance—first from workers with state-owned Air France, then from fishermen and students successively. Chirac and Juppé, having campaigned on a platform of easing the confrontational style and repairing the so-called social fracture, approached any new reforms gingerly. As recently as August, Juppé sacked his Thatcherite finance minister Alain Madelin for merely suggesting that public-sector privileges would have to be questioned.

But Juppé and Chirac were forced to act. The criteria for joining the single European currency, scheduled to be introduced by 1999, demand a national deficit of no more than three per cent of GDP. France’s current budget shortfall is above five per cent. The strict targets are aimed at pacifying German fears about the consequences of surrendering their beloved and highly valued Deutschemark to join a common currency with profligate European partners. Juppé insisted last week that, common currency or not, France needed to get its fiscal house in order. But there was little doubt that the need to meet the 1999 deadline left Juppé little option. “We don’t need geniuses in government—the answer is simply that sacrifices will have to be made,” said Levy. “But the art of execution has been terrible and because of that, this government has lost six very precious months.”

By week’s end, Juppé was sounding more conciliatory. He appointed a mediator to try to end the strikes, and agreed to “consult” the unions about changes. But he seemed perplexed by the ferocity of the forces his plans had unleashed. “I don’t understand this morosity,” Juppé said in his TV address. “Ask yourself: Is there another country in the world where you would rather live than France?” Juppé was not alone. Few observers had predicted the strength of the protest, a mixed collection of causes that merged into a mass movement. “Even the union leaders were surprised at how the strikes snowballed,” said Michel Field, a TV talk-show host and former student radical from the famous 1968 protests that toppled Charles de Gaulle’s presidency. “It’s not like 1968 at all,” he continued. “Then, there was one big movement to modernize France. Now, there is nothing but despair and fear and anxiety about what lies ahead.” Or, as the clarion cry of the streets went: “ras le bol.” □

‘France has to choose between change and decline’

HOW THE G-7 COMPARES A key element in the French struggle is the 1999 deadline for members of the planned European monetary union to trim their annual budget deficits to three per cent of gross domestic product. The current deficit picture for central governments in G-7 countries:

Deficit Per cent of GDP 7E7 $121 billion 8.5 BRITAIN $88 billion FRANCE $86 billion CANADA $37.5 billion JAPAN $183 billion GERMANY $47 billion UNITED STATES $224 billion