Privatisation for state-owned companies?

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In his inaugural address to the National Assembly on 19 June 1997, France's new Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, said nothing to clarify his position on the privatisation programme planned by the outgoing Government.

Employers and unions are waiting expectantly to find out the Prime Minister's line on the future status of state-owned companies. The previous administration had committed itself to the privatisation of some state enterprises - France Telecom, Thomson, and Air France, for example. This was in order to harmonise French legislation with that of the European Community, and reduce the budget deficit with the money raised from share sales.

In his speech to the National Assembly on 19 June, the new Prime Minister distinguished between two types of activity:

  • on one side, public services, especially the energy-distribution utilities, which "form part of a basic conception of society (and) ... are at the heart of the social relationship";
  • on the other, the public sector, especially the telecommunications, electronics and aeronautical sectors, where "ownership is what is at stake". Here, the Government is not in favour of the idea of privatisation "without justification based on the national interest", even if the sector will have to "adapt".

For the trade union confederations, the CGT (Confédération Général du Travail), the CFE-CGC (Confédération Française de l'Encadrement - Confédération Générale des Cadres) and the CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens), this distinction between public sector and public service is "just playing with words", and needs to be made much clearer. The Group of 10 independent unions criticised the definition as being "open to all kinds of abuse", while the UNSA (Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes) emphasised that despite his declaration of intent, the Prime Minister had done nothing "at the Amsterdam summit to enshrine the concept of public service in the EC debate". With regard to the telecommunications industry, although Nicole Notat, the general secretary of CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) had previously declared her approval for the sector to be opened up to private investment, the CFDT-PTT federation in this sector is opposed to this view.

The employers' organisation, CNPF (Conseil National du Patronat Français), however, is satisfied with the announcement of changes in the public sector companies already working in a competitive context. It pointed again to the reluctance of foreign companies to enter into "large-scale strategic alliances" with firms in which the state was still a shareholder.

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