- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

PARIS Wearing their ankle-length black robes, about 4,000 lawyers marched through Paris last week protesting reduced fees for the defense of clients assigned by the state.

The country's 60,000 general medical practitioners are planning a paralyzing warning strike, pleading increasing poverty in the medical profession. Last year, 54 policemen committed suicide, apparently because of the stress of the unproductive struggle against crime in the teeming ghettoes.

In the past four months, strikes and demonstrations have brought to the streets protesting farmers, cattle breeders, hospital interns, nurses, policemen and even paramilitary "gendarmes."

While some politicians claim that last year was a time of "crisis and hope," others say the crisis is only beginning.

Looming on the French political horizon are presidential elections three months from now, followed by the parliamentary elections two months later. Accusations and mudslinging are already in full swing, although the leading candidates are keeping their formal announcements for later.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction is spreading, causing bitter conservative accusations of waste and mismanagement against the left-wing coalition government.

"There is a cruel lack of funds," said Jean d'Ormesson of the elite French Academy. "Where has it all gone? Who has plundered the kitty?"

The palpable increase in dissatisfaction throughout the country coincided with the introduction on Jan. 1 of the euro, the joint currency of 12 European Union nations. In France, the euro is blamed for a 4 percent to 17 percent increase in the prices of a number of goods and services, defying government statistics that showed inflation was in check.

As economic indicators point downward, more and more voices are being raised against the euro's adoption and the accompanying, and frequently blatant, "upward adjustment" of prices.

"Why the euro?" asked conservative analyst Alain Griotteray. "We are told that it is a shield. But with the growing recession in various countries it has become clear that the euro offers no real protection. In fact, it looks more like a handicap."

Most of the protests stem from financial grievances. Lawyers, for example, object to the plan to cut the fees of those designated to defend prisoners or persons without financial resources.

According to the planned reform, the state would pay the officially appointed defense counsel the equivalent of $165. And that, said Caroline Renoncet, a recent law school graduate, "for at least 15 hours of work by someone with seven years of higher education."

Doctors plead the threat of poverty for work averaging up to 59 hours a week in a country that boasts one of Europe's most generous "cradle-to-coffin" welfare systems.

The officially set fee for a doctor's visit is $16, and the price of a house call is $18. When the cost of an office, secretary and equipment is deducted, the statistical general practitioner earns approximately $3,000 a month before taxes.

The medical profession is gradually losing its appeal among the young.

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