France's Socialists drew on the electoral loyalty of the country's large body of public servants to win back power last spring. Now the same Socialists find themselves facing off against their supporters. Nurses, train drivers, post office workers and other public employees walked off their jobs last week to protest Prime Minister Michel Rocard's continued policy of economic austerity. Although hospital, train, and mail services are returning to normal, the workers continue to demand higher wages and better work conditions.
Prime Minister Rocard faces a dilemma and a major test of his skills to govern social conflict: How can a Socialist government reconcile the welfare of workers - its natural constituency - with a ``responsible'' economic policy?
``Rocard needs to be a social magician,'' writes Jean-Marie Colombani, political columnist for Le Monde. ``But if this brush fire turns into a conflagration, he could turn out to be a witch's apprentice.''
Until now, the new Socialist prime minister had enjoyed a long honeymoon.
While the opposition bickered, he brought a welcome new style of impartial, nonideological management to the country. He reached out to the moderate ``centrist'' opposition, regularly consulting with its leaders.
But political observers here say the prime minister has neglected his own followers. Public servants had hoped for some respite from years of fiscal austerity from the Socialists. The 1989 budget contained no provisions for widespread wage increases.
In 1981, the Socialists awarded large pay raises and saw France's trade balance deteriorate. The franc was devalued three times in the course of a year. By 1982, spending curbs were applied. Taxes were raised, and incomes fell.
The tough recipe has produced results. After a long bout of stagnation, the French economy has begun growing this year. Investment is up. Businesses report healthy profits. But the situation remains fragile. August trade figures showed a $9 billion deficit. The franc is falling against the West German mark.
Under these circumstances there are strict limits to what the government is willing to do for public servants. Finance Minister Pierre B'er'egovoy insists he cannot ease off economic austerity. ``We must not compromise the recovery,'' he explains.
Private economists agree that the government enjoys little room for maneuver.
``It is possible to give a 1 percent raise in certain sectors of the public service,'' says Pierre-Alain Muet, an economist associated with the French Institute of Political Science. ``But if this were applied all around it could have very unfavorable effects on inflation and the trade deficit.''
Public-service employees refuse to accept this dry economic analysis. They want the Socialists to act like socialists and side with workers.
``We had great hopes with the change of government,'' says Elisabeth Fernagu, a nurse on strike from the Institut Curie in Paris. ``We're disappointed with Rocard.''
Nurses spearheaded the current labor trouble. They went on a nationwide strike three weeks ago, demanding less crowded wards, continuing education programs, and above all, a hefty $350 a month wage increase.