Behind France's Social Gridlock Government Has Difficulty Explaining Hardships of New, More Demanding Economic Climate

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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. …