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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Predict Autumn of Unrest

PARIS -- State workers are back from summer vacation angry and talking tough about a new round of confrontations with the government over layoffs and budget cutbacks.


Polls find widespread expectations of a "hot autumn" of labor unrest. The underlying fear is the disputes will escalate into a repeat of last winter's paralyzing strikes, which were France's worst since the upheaval of 1968.


Denis Brun, a graying train engineer who joined with millions of workers in the winter walkouts, says he and his co-workers are ready to do it again.


"We're vigilant," he says, sipping espresso at the Gare de l'Est station. He hopes more strikes "won't be necessary. But they'd better not threaten railworkers and their retirements."


A fellow engineer, Jacques Metairie, adds, "If you put a match to it, it will flare up."


French workers generally slog back from the traditional August vacation in a bad mood.


But the malaise is unusually widespread because of anger over job cuts in numerous industries, both public and private.


What remains to be seen is whether divided unions will pull together again as they did last winter.


It is a delicate dance for the government of President Jacques Chirac and Premier Alain Jupp?, which is grappling with a budget deficit, money-losing state companies and an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent.


Chirac and Jupp? are vowing to hold the line in the 1997 budget, which will be unveiled Sept. 10. Last Thursday, Chirac reiterated that France will stick to plans to slash the deficit as part of preparations for joining a single European currency by 1999.


The stakes are high for France and Germany, which are risking social unrest to forge the currency in an effort to turn the 15-nation European Union into an economic superpower.


Union leaders are equally adamant about fighting any new austerity in the new budget.


Jupp? wants to trim the 1997 budget deficit to the equivalent of $49 billion from the $58-billion shortfall projected for this year.


"All the ingredients for strong social tensions are united," Louis Viannet, head of the powerful communist-led General Labor Confederation, or CGT, said at a news conference.


"We solemnly call on all employees to take the offensive."


Viannet demanded a moratorium on job cuts, a higher minimum wage and a 35-hour workweek with the same salary.


Jupp? tried a year ago to cut railway jobs and pensions at the same time, provoking the winter walkout that was later joined by other state workers fearful for their jobs.


While he partially backed down on the railroad pensions and other measures, Jupp? maintained key cuts.


Financial markets have been nervous in recent days, with the franc losing some ground against other currencies amid new talk that France will be unable to meet tough fiscal requirements for a single European currency.


A daylong strike by defense workers is slated for Sept. 10 to protest a restructuring plan eliminating thousands of jobs. A teacher strike is planned for early October.