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Transport Workers Mount Paris Strike

March 31, 1995|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Public transport workers demanding higher pay paralyzed the vast rail and bus network in this capital and environs on Thursday with a one-day strike, sending a blunt message to the candidates running for French president that similar social trouble may lie in wait for the winner.

The wave of separate strikes in Paris, a metropolitan area with more than 8 million people, left fewer than a quarter of the region's subways and commuter trains running, forcing residents into their cars and creating miles-long traffic jams.

National train schedules also were disrupted, and the state-owned air carrier, Air Inter, struck for the third time in three weeks by workers protesting layoffs, canceled half its domestic flights.

While Parisians are accustomed to an occasional transport strike, analysts said this was the broadest single work stoppage in several years. It reflected growing pressures among French workers for salary increases after three years of sacrifice and, for a day at least, supplanted unemployment as the most important issue in the presidential campaign.

But the strikes also indicated that the predominantly left-wing labor movement has given up hope that Lionel Jospin--the Socialist Party candidate who is ranked third in most polls--can win. In the 14-year presidency of retiring Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, unions were reluctant to strike during campaigns, fearing it would hurt candidates from the left.

The main presidential contenders, Jacques Chirac, the conservative Paris mayor who has a strong lead in the polls, and his ideological bedfellow, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, expressed their support for the workers' right to strike.

Balladur, who as premier stands to lose the most from any hint of social unrest, nevertheless put the best face on it, pointing out that it was economic growth achieved during his watch that had led to worker demands for higher salaries.

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"It's only normal the French want to better their lot," he said in a television interview. But, he added, just because they are striking does not mean that France should "break the cash machine."

His government's latest unemployment figures, which showed a slight reduction in the ranks of the jobless in February, were driven from front pages by strike news.

As many Parisians walked to work Thursday, Mitterrand inaugurated the last of his "Great Projects," the sprawling $1.3-billion National Library of France, on the Left Bank. The library, among the president's most expensive and controversial projects, will not open to the public until early 1997.

Mitterrand, 79, ill with cancer and just weeks away from his presidency's end, unveiled a commemorative plaque and strolled through the complex, whose book depositories are in four, 18-story glass towers that rise up like open books along the Seine.

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