Prague, 4 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - In France today history seems to be repeating itself.
Since late Sunday night, striking truck drivers seeking more pay and less working hours have manned some 140 roadblocks, blockaded oil refineries, fuel depots, factories and key bridges connecting French to other European highways. Their actions have provoked a gas-buying stampede, a run on food staples at supermarkets, massive traffic tie-ups --and angry protests and denunciations from France's neighbors. At home, however, the "routiers"--as the French call truckers-- enjoy the support of newspapers on all sides of the political spectrum and, for the moment at least, the sympathy of much the population for whose suffering they are responsible.
All this is a replay, just a year later, of last November's 12-day truckers strike, which paralyzed the country and cost it and its neighbors hundreds of millions of dollars. France suffered a 0.4 percent shortfall in its estimated 1996 annual growth because of that strike. It ended with truck owners promising pay rises and a one-time bonus of about $500, promises which the drivers say were largely unfulfilled --the biggest reason for their current walk-out. If this year's strike is equally prolonged, it could cut tax revenues the country needs to meet a tight budget deficit target in order to be eligible to join the European Union's single currency in 1999.
That leaves France's five-month-old Left Government, which is going all-out to meet the EU's strict criteria, with its first domestic crisis and a giant dilemma: Should it put pressure on the strikers to end their walk-out? Unlikely for a government whose Communist transport minister is conducting the negotiations between truckers and employers. Should it offer to make up what the truckers have not received from their bosses, either directly or by reducing taxes on employers? Less unlikely, but difficult to do without some creative accounting that would keep the government outlay from swelling France's budget deficit.
Or, finally, should it put stronger pressure on truck company owners to accept the drivers' demands to increase their salary from its current $1,300 to $1,700 a month (10,000 francs) and cut their monthly working time from 250 to 200 hours? Most likely, since many in the Socialist-led Government believe the employers are seeking to punish it for recently introducing legislation reducing the work-week from 39 to 35 hours, a measure deeply unpopular with business owners. The answer might come later today when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who so far has been publicly silent, faces his weekly question-and-answer session in the National Assembly.
For all its similarities to last year's action, the current strike also has some notable differences. For one thing, the truckers have learned how to achieve instant national paralysis: Last year, it took them a week to mount 140 roadblocks, this year 24 hours sufficed. For another, because this year's walk-out was foreseeable days in advance, many French and foreign employers either kept their trucks idle or re-routed them through Belgium and the Netherlands. And this time the Government has used riot police to unblock some highways leading to Spain and Germany.
But that has not pacified angry British, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish and German government officials and truck owners. Nor has it satisfied the EU, whose Executive Commission said yesterday it was "very concerned" with the strike. Tomorrow, the EU's 15 ambassadors are due to meet in Brussels to discuss further possible action
There are other international implications to the French strike. Should it prove to be long, the action could slow Christmas shipments and hurt other West European economies struggling out of years of recession. It could also prove contagious --Italian truckers are threatening a strike of their own next week. Moreover, coming months after a similar strike by the U.S.-owned United Parcel Service (UPS) disturbed businesses around the world, it raises questions about labor's --and labor unions'-- role in an increasingly globalized economy.
Quite coincidentally, the United Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO) yesterday released a report showing that union membership dropped in most industrial countries over the decade from 1985 to 1995. But at the same time, the ILO said, surviving unions have retained their influence --especially in Europe. In Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland and much of Central and Eastern Europe --where union allegiance was compulsory under Communist rule-- unions remain a full partner with government and business in three-way negotiations that determine salaries and working conditions in major industries. That is n-o-t true of either the U.S. or France, although UPS strikers were mostly affiliated with the Teamsters' Union and 250,000 striking French truckers belong to various politically affiliated unions.
In fact, says the report, France has become one of the West's least unionized countries, with only nine percent of its labor force now affiliated with one "syndicat" or another. But French unions' power to bring great numbers of workers onto the streets, or the highways, remains as strong as ever. According to Jean-Michel Servais, the Belgian ILO specialist who was the main author of its report, that's because today "the French union movement is one of militants rather than just members. Its capacity to mobilize non-members is still very significant." His report also suggests that in France there is a "very ideological concept of industrial relations" which encourages agreements with employers to be seen as temporary truces in a class war rather than accords reached by cooperation.
In the end, the French case is a unique one. Where else in the world would a frustrated, tortured population applaud the actions of those making their daily life miserable? Only in France.