French students, doctors, farmers taka to the streets
First, striking doctors marched down the boulevards. Then, angry farmers blocked frontier posts, seizing and burning pork shipments entering the country. Finally, disillusioned students converged on the National Assembly, hurling stones at police vans until they were dispersed by tear gas and water cannon.
The demonstrations this week represented the loudest protests to date against the government of President Francois Mitterrand. And as such disparate groups as doctors, farmers, and students joined in protest, a larger question arose: 15 years after Sorbonne students took on the police and led an entire nation in the ''1968 students' revolt,'' is France facing an imminent convulsion of similar magnitude?
Officials expect the demonstrations to gather in momentum this summer as the recently imposed austerity measures cut into purchasing power just before Frenchmen leave on holiday.
But most commentators do not expect Mr. Mitterrand will have to resort to the extreme measures Charles de Gaulle needed in 1968 to restore calm. There are fundamental differences between the events today and 15 years ago, they say.
Unlike the revolutionary Sorbonne students, this week's protestors are not questioning the legitimacy of the entire political system. AS of now, the disturbances remain confined to fairly narrow interest groups with specific complaints. The main industrial unions have only called for small-scale work stoppages in the coming weeks, and none seems ready yet to take on a leftist government by starting a general strike.
Student leaders confirm this view, according to Reuters. They say their aim is to alter the reforms, not to bring down the government. Still, even without a general explosion, each of the groups now out on the streets presents Mr. Mitterrand with a difficult problem to resolve.
Take the medical students. In February, they quit their courses, complaining about a new ''comprehensive'' exam which would be used to determine which students may continue with their studies and enter the prestigious medical specialties.
Hospital doctors and university doctors joined the students the following month for similar reasons. They were infuriated by another government reform which would place severe restrictions on their promotion possibilities.
Behind the strike lies a crisis in French medicine. Many claim the country has too many doctors, especially too many specialists. In 1950, there were 30, 000 doctors in the country. Today there are 120,000, and far too many of the recently trained have entered specialties, leaving many rural areas without family doctors. In addition, salaries on the whole are not high.
Yet the government is ''confronted by a profound mutation,'' says Health Minister Edmond Herve. ''We must take account of this demographic evolution or there will be anarchy.''
Then there are the farmers, who say the prices they receive for their goods are too low. And their mood has grown increasingly sour over the past 10 years as their real income (after inflation) has fallen.
''I have 30 cows on 28 hectares,'' explains Henri Buissant, a dairy farmer from Grenoble. ''I work 60 to 70 hours a week, and I still can't make ends meet. I can't invest in the tractor I need. I never take a vacation.''
To provide temporary relief for the farmers, Agriculture Minister Michel Rocard flew to an European Community (EC) farm ministers' meeting in Luxembourg Wednesday to press his demand for a 3 percent cut in EC monetary compensatory amounts (MCAs). MCAs are a mechanism which accounts for fluctuating exchange rates within the EC.
The system makes West German farm products more attractive than French agricultural goods in trade between the two countries, which helps West German growers at the expense of French ones. The West Germans stood firm in their opposition to this proposal, though, and Thursday the talks collapsed. Another meeting is scheduled for May 16.
Joining the farmers in increasing numbers are nonmedical students, who are protesting poor job prospects and government plans to change regulations for higher education. The French university system is a mess, say critics. Terribly overcrowded, it gives out too many degrees, most of which are practically worthless on the job market.
The government, to solve the problem, proposes creating more technical schools and spreading the student body, now centered in Paris, around the country. That doesn't please Brigitte, though, a first-year history student at the Sorbonne, who was one of the 7,000 or so students massed in front of the National Assembly Wednesday.
''If the government gets its way, I'll have to go to some suburban college,'' she moaned. ''I like my professors and the atmosphere at the Sorbonne, and I want to stay there.''
The question for Brigitte and her fellow students is how serious they are. Brigitte threw a few rocks yesterday before police succeeded in getting her to go home.
Will she be more violent at tomorrow's demonstration? And if she does throw more rocks, will the country at large, angered by socialist austerity, follow her lead?