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Palace, Hardware Store on the Same Street : Tiny Luxembourg Just One Big Happy Family; Doesn't Plan to Change

March 08, 1987|ROBERT J. WIELAARD | Associated Press

LUXEMBOURG, Luxembourg — There were few people Andre Claude did not greet as he wound his way through the streets of Luxembourg one recent day.

"In Luxembourg, everyone knows just about everyone," said the man who has been the government spokesman for 36 years.

"You know why Luxembourgers never honk their horns?" he asked, telling a Luxembourger joke. "They are bound to upset a friend or relative."

Such is life in this picturesque nation of dense forests, steep hills and serpentine rivers wedged between Belgium, France and West Germany.

One Phone Book

It has a population of just 365,000 and is one place that Rhode Island is bigger than.

Its armed forces total 450, its police force 550. It has one telephone book listing every phone user in the country, including the office and home numbers of government officials.

Americans have been a topic of talk on some of the telephones lately.

In December, the gun sights on 34 M-60 tanks were found to be damaged at a U.S. Army storage depot at Sanem, 12 miles west of the capital.

U.S. officials called it sabotage.

"Tanks are made to be tough," one U.S. official said. "They don't damage easily."

Official Disagreement

But an official Luxembourg investigation concluded that it was caused by "carelessness during routine maintenance" by the semi-private Luxembourg company responsible for storing the tanks. But U.S. officials still didn't agree.

Then on Jan. 29, Parliament decided to ignore an informal U.S. request for another Army storage depot in Luxembourg, which already has a supply center for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a U.S. military hospital.

"My party opposes further militarization of Luxembourg," said Ben Fayot, head of the Socialist Party, which rules in a coalition with Christian Democrats.

Was anti-Americanism cropping up in Luxembourg?

'Not Anti-NATO'

"I stress that our opposition to more U.S. Army facilities has nothing to do with an anti-U.S. attitude," Fayot said. "My party is not anti-American or anti-NATO."

But there aren't many crucial issues to take Luxembourgers' minds off their postcard surroundings.

The jobless rate is only 1.5%, and you can count the number of labor strikes in recent decades on one finger.

The city of Luxembourg, the capital, straddles a picturesque ravine. With a population of 76,000, it is more like a provincial town.

Palace, Hardware Store

In the center, the gingerbread Grand Ducal Palace fronts on a narrow street where Grand Duke Jean and Grand Duchesse Josephine Charlotte's neighbors include a hardware store and a hospital supply store.

Luxembourg, with its lush scenery dotted with castles, breathes a Ruritanian atmosphere that can clash oddly with modern times.

During a visit last year, King Hussein of Jordan went by car from the palace to the Parliament through the maze of narrow downtown streets. The motorcycle escort became entangled in its own gridlock, bringing the motorcade to a halt.

And when hundreds of British soccer fans went on a rampage here Nov. 16, 1983, overturning cars, smashing shop windows and stealing merchandise after England beat Luxembourg, West German border police had to be called in to help the army and police restore order.

No Hurry to Change

Nevertheless, Luxembourgers are in no hurry to change their sedate pace.

The country's slogan is "We Want To Stay What We Are." It comes from a 19th-Century song questioning the need of rail links with Belgium and France.

Despite its rural quality, Luxembourg has the highest annual per-capita income in the European Common Market--$14,300, contrasted with Denmark's $13,000 and West Germany's $12,900. And Luxembourg shows none of the economic hardship that afflicts the countries around it.

Each household regularly gets a free, verbatim report of Parliament debates in the mail, a custom that has become known as "mail box democracy."

Illegal Strike

Luxembourgers still speak of the day, a few years ago, when civil workers went on an illegal strike. As a union leader addressed the strikers, his bullhorn stopped working and he borrowed one from a police officer.

"This is unthinkable elsewhere," Claude said. "A cop helping an organizer of an illegal strike."

In recent years, Luxembourg's steel industry has cut its work force in half to 14,000, but it did so through attrition and trained the laid-off employees for other jobs. Today, for instance, crews clearing forests in the north once ran blast furnaces in the south.

In the meantime, Luxembourg has become a major international banking center, employing 11,000 people, or 7% of the nation's work force. More than 200 credit institutions, including 122 banks, are based here, with total assets of $210 billion.

Some Problems

But being small has its problems.

For example, France went ahead with a nuclear power plant near the Luxembourg border over Luxembourg's objections.

"When you are as small as we," Foreign Minister Jacques Poos said, "you're not always listened to."

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