France's Foreign Policy; between Chirac and a Hard Place

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 13, 2003 | Go to article overview

France's Foreign Policy; between Chirac and a Hard Place


Byline: Helle Dale, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Provence, France. - French government squeezed by domestic discontent. It's not often that you find yourself going to the opera under riot police protection, but anything can happen when you provoke the wrath of French theater workers. Having been denied their demands for full benefits for part-time work, theater and stage workers have paralyzed many of France's festivals this summer and wreaked havoc on the already depressed tourism season. In some places, though, the show has been able to go on under extraordinary conditions.

At the Roman theater in Orange, La Traviata was performed in all its tragic, weepy splendor, and Violetta was able to expire uninterrupted by hecklers and strikers in true operatic fashion, i.e. in the arms of her lover while singing at the top of her lungs. But outside on surrounding hills, police in riot gear stood at the ready, and plainclothes policemen were packed into the audience to jump on any threatening provocateur.

Having spent the winter and spring looking for ways to oppose - or at least annoy - the Americans over Iraq, the neo-Gaullist government of France has now been forced to face some of its burning domestic issues. Its approval ratings are down to 42 percent; it has been a hot summer here in more ways than one.

Social reforms are essential to lift the overburdened French economy, which has registered very little growth for the past several years, and certainly not enough to absorb the disaffected unemployed, a common European malaise. Meanwhile, the government is defying budgetary constraints decreed by the European Stability Pact, which is supposed to enforce strict limits on discretionary spending and budget deficits. The governor of the Bank of France - Jean-Claude Trichet, soon to be President of the European Central Bank - is calling on the French government to take advantage of tentative signs of an economic upswing to pursue much needed reforms.

There is not much sympathy to be had, though, from French public sector workers, who are among the most pampered in Europe, with their 35-hour work weeks, extensive job protections and state retirement pensions that can start as early as 55 years of age. They launched a wave of strikes this spring to protest unpopular government proposals to reform pensions, social security, labor market regulations and education. Before the summer break, for instance, some teachers developed the interesting habit of going on strike Mondays and Fridays and hoping to be paid for Saturday and Sunday.

President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin have complained about the wounds that the strikes have inflicted on French society, and are generally terrified of the French street and the popular support behind it. …

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