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Cold, Weariness Dampen Latest Protests in France : Labor: Unions fall short of calling out 2 million marchers. Buses, trains and subways begin to roll again.

December 17, 1995|From Times Wire Services

PARIS — As a paralyzing, 3-week-old strike neared its end, unions tried to flex their political muscle one last time with nationwide protests Saturday against austerity measures.

But with freezing temperatures across much of France and a strike-weary nation seeking a return to normalcy, the unions were hard-pressed to mobilize the 2 million people--the number Prime Minister Alain Juppe has said could force him to step down.

None of the six previous protests against his social security overhaul that raised taxes and cut benefits for public workers turned out more than 1 million people.

Police said 40,000 people took part in protest Saturday in Paris and 50,000 in the southern port of Marseille; unions claimed the turnout was 300,000 and 100,000, respectively.

Protests also were held in Toulouse, Grenoble and Bordeaux.

"We're not planning to give up," said Louis Viannet, secretary-general of the General Confederation of Workers, before calling for another protest on Tuesday. "The railroad workers' victory has given everyone more confidence."

While Juppe has retreated on some of his austerity measures, including exempting rail workers from having to work longer for their pensions, he has held steadfastly to most of his program.

The strike among millions of France's public workers shut down mass transit and other public services, but failed to spread to the private sector, which could have been politically fatal to Juppe.

In the end, Juppe appeared likely to survive the strike, and financial markets were relatively stable as he stuck to his efforts to cut a $64-billion budget deficit to meet the European Union's single currency requirements by 1998.

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The movement to return to work was rapidly gaining momentum one week before Christmas.

Rail workers on Friday voted overwhelmingly to end their walkout, and some high-speed trains were screaming across France on Saturday. In Paris, 15% of buses and four of the city's 13 subway lines were running, free of charge.

"I've supported the strikers until now," said Mariam, a 24-year-old nursing student riding a Paris subway train. "But I have to say I want this to be over. Just being in the Metro gives me hope again."

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