The French strike, and people listen

Premier Lionel Jospin yesterday made concessions to end blockades by truckers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Who go on strike more often, the French or the Americans?

The always-protesting French, you say? Wrong.

France actually lost fewer workdays to labor disputes last year - per worker - than the United States, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But when the French have a grievance, they make sure everybody notices.

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Even if it means breaking the law, like the truckers - angry at rising gas prices - who set fire to railroad tracks between Paris and Strasbourg last week; or fishermen, also demanding protection from high prices at the pump, who blockaded every port in the country.

"One has the impression that in France we can only settle problems through actions taken in a climate of high tension, whereas in other countries the same problems are settled calmly through discussion," said Thierry Desmarest, chairman of Total Fina Elf, the oil company.

French Premier Lionel Jospin was left with the same impression after a week of oil-refinery blockades by truckers that almost paralyzed the country, before the drivers gave in over the weekend. "It is normal for the government ... to respond to sectors where people are suffering real difficulties," he said in an interview published yesterday. "But I think we could have arrived at similar results by negotiating before blockading."

[OPEC members agreed yesterday to boost the group's oil output by 800,000 barrels per day, two oil ministers in the petroleum producers cartel said. The decision, reached after hours of informal talks in Vienna, came amid mounting international pressure - especially from European and US leaders - on the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries to pump more oil to stem surging fuel prices.]

Elsewhere in Europe, it did not escape peoples' notice that French fishermen, truckers, farmers, and taxi drivers had won concessions from the government by effectively holding the country ransom by starving it of fuel.

In Britain, several hundred truckers staged a go-slow on a major road in the north of England on Saturday, while others picketed a refinery in Wales. Italian fishermen occupied quays around the country, threatening to block ports, and Belgian truckers were planning to converge on Brussels yesterday afternoon.

But nowhere else on the Continent have such demonstrations shown such panache, determination, and single-mindedness as they did in France.

This, observers say, reflects a traditional French instinct to seek remedy for any ill from the government.

The truck owners, for example, have not reacted to rising diesel prices by hiking the tariffs they charge their clients. Instead, they turned to the government and demanded tax rebates.

"Our economic culture certainly leans too often toward the responsibility of the state instead of the responsibility of each business," acknowledges Alexis Bordet, a spokesman for a national federation of truck owners. "Too often we look for solutions from the public authorities rather than in the freedom to make contracts."

"There is a paradox," adds Ren Rmond, head of the prestigious National Political Science Foundation. "The truck owners are always demanding freedom [from government restraints], but as soon as they have a problem they want the government to take the responsibility that goes with freedom."

This paradox does not appear to have fazed many citizens here, however. A poll at the end of last week, when truckers were still refusing the government's final offer, showed that 88 percent of French voters sympathized with or supported the protest action, even though 4 gas stations out of 5 were out of supplies.

And a poll published yesterday in the Journal de Dimanche found that 67 percent of respondents were unhappy with the way Mr. Jospin had refused to budge after his initial concessions to the truckers. "As a general rule, the French always show sympathy for people in difficulty," explains Professor Rmond.

That means that French governments have to sit up and take notice of social protest movements when they take to the streets, and they don't have just the revolution in 1789 as a reminder. More recently, and more relevantly, the last conservative government, led by Alain Jupp, fell after a wave of strikes in 1995 against his economic reform plans, even though the strikers made up less than 10 percent of the population.

Last week, as in 1995, suggests Stphane Rozs, head of the CSA polling organization, "people went on strike by proxy" through the truckers, supporting them in order to voice their dissatisfaction with the government and the high gasoline prices that everyone has to pay.

"Behind the price problem there is a general resentment about taxes," says Grard Dupuy, a political commentator with the daily Libration. Socialist Finance Minister Laurent Fabius "sensed the wind turning when he said recently that the left would lose the next elections [in 2002] not to the right but to taxes."

Such resentment is common across Europe, however, where up to 80 percent of the price motorists pay at the pump goes for government taxes. But only in France do people react immediately by trying to bring the country to a standstill so as to make the government help them out.

"France," shrugs Dr. Rozs, "works differently from other countries."

*Material from the wire services was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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