Behind France's Social Gridlock

Government has difficulty explaining hardships of new, more demanding economic climate

A VOLATILE mix of an unresponsive government and a working population jarred by fundamental social and economic changes once again threatened to bring much of France to a halt this week.

But even as the last striking truckers gave up their 10-day-old roadblocks yesterday and allowed traffic to return to normal, observers warned that future cases of social gridlock are inevitable unless workers and public officials both make an effort to understand and negotiate in a new and fast-changing economic context.

"Right now it's the truckers and farmers, but the profound societal changes we're seeing are widespread and for the long term," says Renaud Sainsaulieu, a noted French sociologist. "Without better representatives on all sides with an ability to understand and discuss a changing world, there will be more such movements."

As the French truckers' roadblocks left Spanish beaches empty of northern tourists and British factories idle, neighbors said France's crossroads position in an increasingly integrated European economy made such obstacles intolerable.

French truckers ended dozens of roadblocks across the country after government ministers negotiated a revision of worktime provisions and accepted some changes in a controversial new driver-licensing system.

Ostensibly, the truck drivers began their blockage of principal roadways nearly two weeks ago over the licenses which link driving infractions with license revocation. But observers including Mr. Sainsaulieu say the more crucial underlying problem is increasingly difficult working conditions tied to economic changes.

"Behind it all is the growth of just-in-time manufacturing, demanding schedules for deliveries, and a greater reliance on truck transport," says Sainsaulieu.

With the government failing to anticipate the reaction the new license system would cause, and with the largely independent truckers operating without unions or other traditional negotiating organizations, the recipe for spontaneous action was complete, observers say.

Other observers note that the truckers' lack of any union or leadership inevitably exacerbated attempts at negotiation.

"The state and management no longer have the established interlocutors they once did," says Pascal Perrineau, director the Center for the Study of French Political Life.

The weakening of time-tested negotiating organizations was also evident last month during French farmers' unsuccessful attempt to paralyze Paris with their tractors. When traditional organizations refused association with the action, grass-roots groups sprang up to take their place.

The farmers were upset with the government for accepting European Community reforms that they say would make them social welfare cases by paying them not to produce. Observers note that many farmers were just as much dependents of the state under the former system, only they were paid to produce.

Society's increasing complexity and an inability to explain change to a befuddled public may be crucial factors in France's social turmoil. "It is very difficult to explain today's realities, the international markets and pressures for faster production systems, to groups accustomed to different times," says Sainsaulieu, a specialist in private-sector labor.

According to Mr. Perrineau, part of the reason France seems particularly prone to such wildcat social movements is that its public still turns to the state for redress. "It was very clear during the trucker's action," he says. "They were rejecting the state as the source of their troubles, but all of their demands were also directed to it."

In a political structure that remains extremely centralized despite a decade of decentralization policies, the public has few options for making its demands. And with the weakening of unions and the failure to replace them with other collective organizations, Perrineau adds, popular pressure on the French state will only grow in the future.

The controversy over the new driver licensing system also stems in part from a French trait that chafes at the kind of personal responsibility the new driving permit imposes, Sainsaulieu says. "The French sense of individualism is challenged by this new system," he says. "The Frenchman's unwritten approach to laws is to get around them, but this law doesn't allow it. The driver himself is stuck."

With France's roads now open and vacationers happily on their way to the sunny south, the recent social conflicts may soon be forgotten. But Perrineau says a society as "fragmented and leaderless" as France is not sheltered from future movements, from students, health workers, farmers, and others.

"What is needed are new social ties, structures to replace the unions and political parties that no longer fill that function," he says, "but those are not built from one day to the next."

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