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French Can’t Find Word For Austerity Government’s Plan To Cut Debt Is At Heart Of Crippling Strike

Thu., Dec. 14, 1995

The embattled French government is finding it easier to make peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina than to keep the peace at home.

President Clinton and other world leaders gathering in Paris today to sign an accord to end the Bosnian war will find a French capital reeling from a crippling four-week transit strike.

The worst French strike in the last decade has spread to dozens of cities and to other industries. Workers and students have united to challenge the government’s plan to cut the federal deficit by making huge reductions in government-funded social programs.

French President Jacques Chirac says government spending cuts are needed if France is to avoid financial disaster. But the strikers see it as a threat to the French way of life, which has been heavily subsidized by government pensions and benefits.

“We’re striking to keep our benefits, to keep the retirement plan that was promised to us when we were hired,” said Maryse Magnone, who has worked in the Paris subway system for 13 years.

Magnone, 35, said she and more than a million other strikers are determined to continue the work stoppage until Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe drop the austerity plan.

“People are ready to go to the very end,” she said. “Negotiations are possible, but it’s important to show our strength now and to show our discontent. We’re determined to end up with something positive.”

Juppe has offered to meet with the strikers, but the government has refused to cut the austerity plan, seen as a first step toward reducing France’s $64 billion debt.

“We were not elected to organize France’s decline. We must stay on course. There is no alternative,” Chirac said Wednesday at his weekly Cabinet meeting.

Juppe on Wednesday scrapped plans to revamp France’s indebted railways, but that did little to appease postal, telephone and other public workers who have joined the 20-day-old transit strike. For them, the primary issue remains Juppe’s plan to reform social security.

The strike, which comes after a spate of fatal bombings on the Paris subway system, has left Parisians feeling under siege.

Without the subways, and without France’s efficient national railroad system, transport in Paris and other cities has become a daily nightmare. Traffic jams clog the entries to most urban areas. Tempers are short and the use of car horns has reached symphonic levels.

The stock market has tumbled as the leftist unions have shown their strength, and sporadic work slowdowns at Paris’s international airports have hurt tourism. Many Paris merchants report a sharp drop in Christmas sales - because shoppers cannot get to the stores.

Wine and chocolate seller Alain Jouet said his sales are down more than 50 percent compared with last year, largely because deliveries have not arrived. He called the decline a disaster because he and other shopowners depend on strong Christmas sales to offset slow periods.

“The clients are there, but we can’t respond to their requests,” he said. “It’s a big problem because we sell wines and champagnes and we usually make more than half of our annual sales at Christmas.”

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