BY DEREK JEFFERS
PARIS - Three thousand people marched here January 7 demanding government relief for unemployed workers. Some of the demonstrators carried signs reading "Jobs!" The protest took place outside a meeting of the board of directors of Unedic, the national unemployment insurance agency.
Workers have been occupying 26 unemployment offices throughout France with the protests spreading rapidly. Eight new offices were occupied on January 6 alone.
French television reported that the authorities had closed another 44 of the 636 offices nationwide to prevent demonstrators from taking them over. The protests have been spearheaded by several organizations in support of the unemployed, including Act Together Against Unemployment! (AC!), and by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT).
Ambroise Boulanger, 28, an unemployed restaurant worker and AC! activist, remarked, "Yesterday I was part of an occupation of an unemployment office in the 10th district of Paris, when we were expelled by the military. In a place that's supposed to help the unemployed, they send in the military!"
Workers occupied unemployment offices in early December in the Marseille area, after it became clear that fewer unemployed would receive special year-end checks there to help them through the holiday season this year.
Protesters are demanding a special year-end bonus of 3000FF (6FF=1US$) for all unemployed, an increase of 1500FF a month in the special payments for jobless workers who no longer receiving benefits, and access to the benefits called Minimum Insertion Revenue (RMI) for youth under 25, who are currently excluded from it.
RMI amounts to 2429FF a month for one person and 3644FF for a couple. More than 1 million people depend on it. Of the 3,114,000 unemployed in France - 12.4 percent of the active population - 80 percent receive less than 5,000FF per month. Nearly 37 percent have been jobless for over a year.
Socialist Party prime minister Lionel Jospin was elected on a pledge of addressing the problem of unemployment, which has hovered around 12 percent for the past two and a half years, with promises of creating 700,000 jobs and reducing the workweek to 35 hours.
The previous government of Alain Juppé had been rocked by working-class protests against the economic crisis and the regime's attempts to impose austerity measures.
Jospin met twice on January 6 with three top ministers in an attempt to defuse the crisis. Previous concessions announced January 2 - 3, an extra 500 million francs in aid and half-price public transportation fares for unemployed workers in the Paris area, did not stop the protests.
After granting the aid, Martine Aubry, minister for employment and solidarity, demanded an end to the occupations, warning that "nothing today justifies the continuation of these illegal actions."
The fight by unemployed has attracted other working-class fighters. Doro Traoré, a spokesperson for a group of undocumented immigrant workers, known as the Sans Papiers de Saint Bernard, told the crowd outside the national unemployment agency, "While immigrant workers are blamed for unemployment, the unemployed and undocumented are demonstrating together in the streets so they won't be able to divide us and pick us off one by one."
Other government ministers in the coalition government, worried about the broad support the protests enjoy among working people, have tried to defuse the crisis by posturing as supporters of the unemployed. Marie-George Buffet, minister of tourism and member of the French Communist Party (CP), christened the movement as "completely legitimate," stating that she "wasn't asking" the unemployed to end the occupations. Some of the organizers of the actions are CP members.
Green Party minister Dominique Voynet stated January 4 that "nothing in the measures announced by Martine Aubry has changed anything fundamental about these questions." She backtracked the next day, after a telephone call from the prime minister's office, and explained in a statement that "she wasn't criticizing these measures, which she totally supports."
Marseille remains the stronghold of the occupations. At the Bougainville unemployment office in Marseille's 15th district, unemployed workers barricaded all entrances with chairs, leaving the elevator as the only access, "because it can easily be shut down in case the police intervene," Hocine Tachoukaft of the local CGT unemployed committee told the French daily Le Monde.
The national daily quoted another protester, Rachida, as saying angrily, "Martine Aubry gives us a crumb while saying, `Here, now calm down !', but it's a pittance. We're not asking for charity... New Year's dinner was buttered pasta. We're fed up!"
Derek Jeffers is a member of the CGT at the GEC-Alsthom
transformer factory in Saint Ouen. Claude Bléton and Young
Socialists member Rafik Benali contributed to this article.
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