Thinkers weigh in on welfare reform

December 15, 1995

French intellectuals have weighed into the crisis over welfare reform in typical fashion, with one text supporting prime minister Alain Juppe and another declaration supporting the strikers.

The review Esprit first took up cudgels at the end of November and published a statement of support for Mr Juppe's health service reforms, signed by a number of academics and researchers who are usually to be found on the left.

As the transport strike then spread to other sectors and received a remarkable surge of public backing, other members of France's indomitable intelligentsia drew up a text in support of the strikers which is still drawing hundreds of signatures from universities and research institutes.Rallying round the second declaration are sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, philosopher Lucien S ve and historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet.

Some of those who signed the first text now seem to be having second thoughts. "I would not sign it today," admitted sociologist Robert Castel. "The reason I did was because I was concerned we could end up with a United States-style ultra-liberal health system and I do believe structural changes are needed."

Mr Castel, who directs a centre for the study of social movements said: "I could happily sign the other text. What worries me is constant opposition to change. That is a particularly serious problem in France where there is a sort of gulf, an inability to communicate."

But the strikes have changed all that according to the supporters of the second text. They believe the crisis has opened up a new eagerness to communicate and they intend to organise discussion groups to develop a fresh approach to the whole issue of social reform.

Sociologist Christian Baudelot said: "If the crisis leads to a renewal of thinking about society, it will be extremely interesting - and that concerns everyone, all the people now talking to each other in the streets for the first time."

The supporters of the second text and indeed most strikers also agree reform is needed. They object to the autocratic fashion in which the plan was produced and to some of its implications. "The entire system of public services based on universal human rights laid down since the French Revolution is what is at stake," said Mr Baudelot.

"The strike is winning extraordinary public support because people realise it is this that Juppe is attacking in such a stupid fashion. "According to Mr Baudelot, the French intelligentsia today is fulfilling the role it has had since the Dreyfus affair.

"Everyone thinks they have died out but when universal rights are attacked, they come to their defence," he said. "This movement, with students defending state education, railway workers defending public transport, is fighting for a French model which is important for the rest of Europe."

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