PARIS — FRANCE'S three-week public transit strike launched a million marchers, stranded millions more commuters, and cost the economy some $1.5 billion in lost production. But the strike's longest-term impact could be its challenge to how French leaders govern.
As France's strikers returned to work this week, their relationship with the government is entering a new phase - one of negotiation rather than outright conflict.
In the coming weeks, public workers will be watching to see whether the government has given up a distant, even arrogant approach in handling their concerns over economic reform and planned cuts in the nation's generous social safety net.
Throughout the strike, Prime Minister Alain Juppe has maintained the tone of a teacher, grappling with the "misunderstandings" of subordinates. Reforms were necessary to ensure the nation's future, he told the nation last month.
His conservative party's 82 percent majority in the National Assembly may have boosted his confidence that few would oppose his plans.
"In a democracy, there is a very simple barometer: the vote of the National Assembly," he said in a televised address to the nation 16 days into the strike.
But the applause that then rang through the National Assembly did not echo in the nation. Workers showed severe misgivings about the government reforms, which include cuts in social security.
On Nov. 24, railroad workers shut down the nation's trains and subways. About a third of French public service workers and nearly half of Paris subway workers joined them. Public opinion polls showed that a majority of the French public supported the strike.
After the public transit strike kept France in a traffic jam for weeks, however, the government began to buckle under: first, a new plan to redirect spending to the nation's overcrowded universities in a bid to get the students off the streets; next, agreement to maintain early retirement provisions for some public sector workers.
In a chastened voice, the prime minister told a Dec. 17 TV audience that the strikes had left him with a sense of "understanding" and "reconciliation." He called for all parties to come together to settle this "family quarrel."
Today, Mr. Juppe meets union leaders in a "social summit." France's trade unions, who represent less than 10 percent of French workers and are deeply fragmented, look to today's meeting to regain a political voice. But the government's conciliatory attitude toward the unions may not mean much in fact, since the European Union's demands that France cut its budget deficit still holds.
Until recently, the French government has played down the role of the European Union in forcing public sector reforms. But in order to meet terms for joining the EU's single currency by 1999, France must cut its budget deficit from its current 5.75 percent of gross domestic product down to 3 percent of GDP by the end of 1997.
The new, worker-friendly Juppe has vowed that his government would defend the French notion of public service against Brussels, the EU's capital.
"I say with humility to the French that I am ready to write this into the Constitution ... specifying that France will not allow her public service to be dismantled," he said.
Yet he may not be able to put this idea into practice. Officials at the Brussels-based European Commission similarly discount France's call to preserve the public sector through constitutional amendment.
"It wouldn't be worth the paper it's written on," says one official, who asked not to be identified. "European law supersedes French law on such matters."
"All countries in Europe are coming to the realization that the public sector has to be cut back and that privatization is necessary," says Stanley Crossick, executive director of the Brussels-based Belmont European Policy Center.
"The Brussels bogeyman is put together for home consumption," Mr. Crossick adds.
Last week, leaders from eight public sector unions met with Industry Minister Franck Borotra to discuss a strategy for preserving French public service. As union leaders gathered, France Telecom strikers called for withdrawing plans to privatize the big public utility. But this issue never made it to the table.
"We didn't have many illusions before this round table, but this was worse than we thought," said Denis Cohen, a leader of the General Confederation of Workers as he walked out of the meeting on Dec. 13. "There was no negotiation here. They're just trying to create the impression that they're standing up for France in Brussels, but it's just publicity."
"As for a constitutional amendment to protect the public service, the French Constitution guarantees the right to work, but that hasn't prevented 12 percent unemployment," he added.
Union leaders insist that if today's summit does not address their concerns, they are prepared to renew the strike.
The cost to France of renewed hostilities would be high. France's national statistical institute said losses from the strike could lower the nation's growth rate by .4 percent in the final quarter.
Economists say a drop of that magnitude could add $10 billion to the nation's $64 billion deficit, and it could even drop the economy into a job-threatening recession.