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France's Future Being Played Out In Nation's Streets


By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 8, 1995


THERE are decisive moments in the life of nations, and France is living through one of them.

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It's close to the endgame for a strike that has slowed transportation in Paris to a crawl and drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters across the nation to the streets.

The strike, now in its third week, gained momentum yesterday as students and airline workers joined transport and other public-sector workers in marches to protest the government's plan to restructure the railroads and cut social security.

But temperatures are low, commuters are tired, and the strikers are drawing down both their savings and the support of Jacques Q. Public they enjoyed when the strike started on Nov. 24. On Wednesday, strikers in post offices and telecommunications began returning to work.

More significantly, private-sector workers have yet to rally to the cause. Without their clout, strikers can only hope for some face-saving solution.

Whatever the outcome, this strike has posed a choice for France as starkly as it has been posed since World War II. For French Prime Minister Alain Juppe, it's a choice between modernity or decline - between old unions defending old privileges and the reforms needed for future growth.

''Without reform, we will have taken the path of decline, slowly and inevitably,'' Mr. Juppe told the French National Assembly on Tuesday. ''A nation can't live freely, encumbered by debt.''

For strikers, the choice is between a future with guarantees and one without. Strikers say they are not just defending privileges, but insisting on rights and benefits that should be available to all - especially the right to work.

''Is a modern country one with 3 million unemployed? One that can't afford a public service?'' asks railroad striker Claudio Serenelli. ''If so, we don't want it.''

''For the first time [since World War II], we are seeing a rollback of social gains,'' he adds. ''It's a lie that the country has no money. They found $100 million to bail out the bank Credit Lyonnais and to set off [nuclear] bombs at the end of the world. It's not a question of money, it's a question of priorities.''

Railway workers, who spearheaded this strike, often speak of past struggles and hard-won gains not to be given up lightly, such as the right to retire at 50. (British railroad workers retire at 65.)

While benefits are high, salaries are lower than for comparable work in the private sector, transport strikers say. Moreover, the average life expectancy of a railroad worker in France is 57, not 73 like the rest of the nation. That discrepancy was once due to the hardships of working around steam-powered engines. Today, it's the result of irregular work schedules, eating on the run, and being away from the regular rhythms of family life, they say.

''We've lost 73,000 workers in the last 10 years, and seen our buying power drop 20 percent. We are not privileged workers,'' says Yannick Le Bonhomme, head of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) railway union at Paris's northern train station.

''The Maastricht Treaty is massively questioned by the French,'' he says, referring to the 1992 blueprint for strengthening the European Union that would force France and other member state to pare down national spending to meet targets for a single European currency.