French take to streets but no revolution in sight

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PARIS, Nov 2Q (Reuters) Since the French Revolution, taking to the streets has been an essential aspect of French democracy and one that shows no sign of abating under President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Rail workers, metro staff, bus drivers, teachers, civil servants, fishermen, lawyers, students, electricians, nuclear engineers, stage hands and pilots have all stopped work over the past month.

Most of these protests have targeted reforms that Sarkozy says are vital to energise the economy and have reinforced the widely held view that modern-day France is resistant to change.

''France is the only country in the world which does not think a market economy is a good thing,'' said Jacques Marseille, an economic historian at Paris university. ''The dream of many French is to live in a well-functioning Soviet Union.'' While the numerous strikes afflicting France have undoubtedly had a large impact, the vast majority of French employees are working, including in some of the sectors directly affected by the dispute.

On the seventh day of the transport stoppage, just 27 percent of rail workers were on strike, the SNCF state railways said. Only around 30 percent of civil servants adhered to their own one-day strike yesterday the government said.

''People always think of France as a strike-happy country, but this is a myth,'' said Francois Doutriaux, an independent legal consultant and law teacher at a Paris university.

''The myth persists because although there are relatively few strikes in France, there are many more industrial disputes in the transport sector than the European average and these have a very high visibility which impact everyone.'' LIVING A MYTH According to a report put together by French media watchdog Acrimed, based on findings by seven separate surveys, France was only 11th in a league table of 25 nations when it came to days lost to strikes from 1998-2004.

Denmark, Spain, Italy and Norway topped the list.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said that between 2000-2004, four countries easily outstripped France in the strikes' stakes -- Italy, Canada, Spain and Iceland.

''France is not a country of strikers. There are relatively few strikes in the private sector and the French in general are staging fewer and fewer walkouts,'' said Doutriaux.

The strikers can still cause considerable disruption, as seen on the streets of Paris where many commuters are fed up with the gridlock and siding with the government rather than the protesters.

''A small group of people are taking the entire country hostage,'' said Guy Cousserant, 56, walking to work.

''For once, we have a president who is young and willing to do things. But people are not ready to accept change ... The street is ruling this country.'' MANDATE FOR CHANGE Unlike his predecessors, Sarkozy clearly spelled out exactly what reforms he planned to carry out, including the pension revamp that has angered railwaymen, ahead of his comprehensive May election victory.

He believes this has given him a mandate to push ahead with the programme. But he remains wary of the impact of strikes and threw a generous financial package to striking fishermen this month to quell at least one dispute.

Such caution is understandable given France's history.

Ever since the 1789 revolution, the French have believed in the right to protest and in the effectiveness of demonstration.

Protests paralysed the country in 1968, and nationwide rallies in 2006 forced the then government to drop a youth employment scheme.

A previous attempt to end pension privileges in the transport sector in 1995 was aborted because of strikes.

''France has moved forward in the past thanks to revolution and upheaval. Ironically, people are relatively comfortable now thanks to the welfare state and don't want radical change,'' said economic historian Marseille.

''So Sarkozy is trying to repair the car while it is still moving and is meeting some resistance ... but I still think he has a good chance of success.'' REUTERS SG VC0900

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