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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 16:00 GMT
France's 'winter of discontent'
Many travellers faced long delays during a recent strike by French air-traffic controllers
The French are tolerant towards strikers' actions
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

Maybe it is just midwinter blues, but I am beginning to detect a rash of that peculiarly French disease - strike-itis.


French people are finding it increasingly hard to tolerate a situation that appears unjust

Jean-Francois Mathieu, sociologist

It creeps up on you suddenly. There can be months of social harmony and all well in the world, then someone flicks a switch and the workers are out.

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of recent tool-downings.

  • Bank and postal workers were called out on 2 January to disrupt the first working day of the euro. Fortunately not enough heeded the unions to make much of a difference, but more action is threatened later this month.
  • General practitioners are on an extended "greve de garde" - which means they will not work outside regular consulting hours. The result is that the emergency services have been inundated with calls.
  • Obstetricians are refusing to carry out echographies on pregnant women in protest against the so-called Perruche ruling. Under this court judgment, a mentally disabled boy was given damages because doctors had failed to spot his problem in the womb. Obstetricians - who are now legally liable for any oversight - have seen their insurance premiums go through the roof.
  • Air-traffic controllers staged a one-day strike to protest against the liberalisation of European air-space.
  • Teachers were out for a day as well, complaining of being "over-stretched, under-resourced and isolated." They want more time out of the classroom.
  • Police staged a series of marches across the country in pursuit of pay increases and changes to a new law on the presumption of innocence. They got most of what they were demanding.
  • Immediately after that, the country's gendarmes - who are technically military personnel - followed suit. For the first time in their history they flouted the rules that ban them from demonstrating, and won a generous package of financial help.

These times of heightened social tensions come as periodically as the seasons in France. They are an accepted part of life's ritual.

The same people who might be exasperated by the inconvenience, are also surprisingly forbearing about the strikers' right to cause it.

Ritual

But there are two very clear reasons why the present moment is propitious for those wishing to press a claim.

In Rennes, gendarmes drove in slow convoy to mark their protest
Gendarmes went on strike for the first time in history

The first is the 35-hour working week - the key piece of social legislation brought in by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

This is now functioning in large companies.

Its introduction in the public sector - which employs nearly one in four workers - and in small private businesses was due on 1 January, but it is proving difficult and in most cases agreement has yet to be reached.

Thus while in some big companies today workers are enjoying up to 20 days a year extra holiday in lieu of cutting their working times, in hospitals or the police force for example old systems remain in place - fuelling a sense of inequality.

"French people are finding it increasingly hard to tolerate a situation that appears unjust. Every time one sector appears aggrieved compared to another, it provokes a much more forceful rejection than ever before," sociologist Jean-Francois Mathieu says.

Pre-election season

The other reason is of course April's presidential elections, in which Jospin is expected to run against the incumbent Jacques Chirac. Legislative elections follow shortly afterwards.


This will be a winter of discontent

Union leader Marc Blondel
Pre-election seasons are always good for pushing home a demand or wringing a promise of future financial support.

Jospin has no interest in seeing the social climate deteriorate further, and every interest in trying to defuse each conflict as it comes.

Which of course only encourages more.

One of the most refreshing things about French union leaders is that they have absolutely no compunction about admitting what they are up to.

"This will be a winter of discontent," Marc Blondel of the Socialist FO union says.

"People are going to work out that if others have got what they wanted, then they can too."

See also:

03 Jan 02 | Health
Scan strike by French doctors
02 Jan 02 | Business
French bank unions call off strike
13 Jan 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Strikes Ó la Franšaise
07 Dec 01 | Europe
In pictures: Gendarmes protest
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