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FRANCE AT A STANDSTILL // Paris commuters detoured, not deterred

By avoiding the early-morning rush, Yvette Mercourt can still get to work in a couple of hours by car and foot. In reverse, again avoiding the rush hour, she can do the same at night.

Even though the trip used to take her only 40 minutes by train and subway, even though she is tired from walking 4 miles a day for nearly two weeks, she is one of the lucky ones.

So is her office mate, Therese Villiers, who lives closer. The walk that in ordinary times takes her 15 minutes now takes 45 along sidewalks crowded by other walkers, skaters, cyclists, motor scooters and even motorcycles, not to speak of cars parked illegally by people who usually commute into Paris by train, subway or bus.

Their boss, Jean Michel, lives farther away outside Paris. To the avoid traffic backups around the city that on some mornings have totaled nearly 250 miles of road, he has come in before midnight and works through the night.

Like everyone else caught by the strike of railway workers on Nov. 23, joined by the bus and subway drivers a day later, they are all exhausted.

"It can't go on," said Michel.

But for two weeks, it has. France is virtually paralyzed. On Thursday, up to half of France's teachers joined the movement, forcing the closure of more schools. And again, for the second time this week, hundreds of thousands of strikers in the public service who make up a quarter of French workers demonstrated throughout the land.

Thursday, too, there was a small sign of detente when Prime Minister Alain Juppe appointed a mediator to look at the rail strike and the hope of further talks at the weekend. But the deadlock is still complete between Juppe's government _ bent on reducing the heavy social security and public-service deficits _ and strikers bent on defending their vested benefits.

If the growing strikes and massive traffic jams have challenged everyone's ingenuity and in many brought out the best, it has sometimes brought out the worst.

One driver smiles and beckons an old man across in front of him despite the honks behind. Another has a sign in his windshield offering a ride and stops for a hitchhiker. Another almost knocks a pedestrian down running a red light.

"Hey!" the pedestrian yells, pointing at the light. "%!& off!" the motorist yells back.

In comparison, all those above have it relatively easy. On our street, butcher Michel Peullevyey and his wife usually get up at 5 to buy meat at the big wholesale market near Orly airport and get into Paris. Now they have to get up at 4.

Their business is down by 30 percent. Instead of taking the subway to school at 7 in the morning, their two teenage children have to come into Paris with them at 5.

Upstairs from Yvette and Therese in my office building, Daniel Delisle has been riding his bicycle three hours to work and three hours home 25 miles outside Paris. From a little farther, Francisco Arauzo spends the same time behind the steering wheel.

And for days, French television programs have been crowded with the stories of young families living in the suburbs being pushed to the breaking point.

Dad has to get to work in Paris, so does mom, and the kids have to get to school. With no trains and subways available they have to drive, thus the total of 105 miles of traffic jams around Paris on Thursday when falling snow added slippery roads and sidewalks to the mess.

Dad and mom are probably up at 4 or 5 instead of 6. Ordinarily, one would take the youngest kids to school on the way. The older children would go by bus or subway. Many have moved in with their grandparents in Paris.

With more teachers joining the strike Thursday, parents and children arrived to find many of the schools closed. Even when schools have been open, the few teachers can't keep up all the classes. And with cafeterias closed, the children have to bring sandwiches.

Friends and neighbors have usually been quick to help with babies, with pools for child care quick to organize, and more of that, too, was under way Thursday.

Trying to cope, the government has set up 130 makeshift bus lines from the surrounding suburbs to points in Paris, along with four lines of bateaux mouches, the boat buses along the Seine that usually carry tourists.

But they can handle only a fraction of the daily commuters, and the switch to the highways because of the train strike has bitten deeply into family budgets. With gasoline at $4.50 a gallon, the costs of keeping both mom and dad's cars running into Paris has doubled or tripled the cost of commuting.

The main public service unions have been successful in spreading the strike, off and on, to the gas and electricity industries, the post office, hospitals, government offices and on Thursday to the teachers.

Even though flights were reported almost normal, the strike also gained strength Thursday among the air controllers and personnel of the state-owned airlines.

Small shops and businesses have been hard hit at what is usually the pre-Christmas peak.

At the Lebanese sandwich shop a couple of blocks from the St. Petersburg Times office, Imad Jizzimi reports his business is down by 30 percent. Up to half the tables in the usually busy downtown quarter seem empty.

At the newstand, Gilles Gautier estimates the closure of the subways and bus routes has cut his business by about 20 percent.

But again they may be the lucky ones. The hardest hit have been the mail-order houses and small shops.

Five-million people work for the government or state-owned companies in France, one-fourth the working population and one of the highest percentages in Europe.

When Prime Minister Juppe announced a plan to curb the social security, health and welfare program, raise taxes, review early retirement and restructure and privatize some companies, likely with a cut in jobs, railway workers were the first to react.

While private-sector workers now have to contribute for 40 years to get full pensions, most in the public sector continue to contribute 37{ years.

Some railway and subway workers can retire at 50, others at 55 and 60. While private industry workers contribute a third of their social security payments, public service workers pay much less _ railway workers little more than 7 percent.

They are defending benefits inherited from the back-breaking era of steam locomotives and now have carried other public service workers fearful for their jobs with them.

"We can't wait any longer," Juppe said in a belated address to the nation on Tuesday night. "It's necessary to do this now, and together. France has a rendezvous with history."

This rendezvous is with European unity in the form of a single European currency by the end of the century. Within the next two years, that would require France to bring down a debt of over $65-billion sharply. Some $12-billion of it in the social security system and much of the rest in the state industries, first of all in the railways which are France's pride.

The strike has turned into what might be seen as a second referendum on the controversial Maastricht treaty outlining the future of European unity that was only narrowly approved in 1992.

With demonstrators in the streets Thursday, Juppe had to stay home from a summit meeting in Baden-Baden between President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who cannot help but see his dream of a common currency being jeopardized in France. The end-of-the-century goal may have to give.

It may surprise outsiders, but unfortunately for Juppe and his boss, Chirac, many Frenchmen sympathize with the strikers. A poll a few days ago put it at around 60 percent, even if only about 40 percent supported their demands.

Having listened to candidate Chirac promise both more jobs and higher pay in his election campaign only six months ago, many are angry and confused at the call for major sacrifices in cuts in a social security system that is the envy of many in Europe.

"Fed up" is the most common phrase in France. Chirac and Juppe have fallen to record levels in the polls.

"It's the same as Mururoa," said one angry driver quoted in a French newspaper, comparing the Juppe program to the controversial French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

"They first set off a bomb without consulting anyone and worry about the consequences afterward."

Even within their own conservative majority, Juppe is criticized for announcing his austerity program without first trying to negotiate with the unions and coat the pill.

Would-be candidates to succeed him as prime minister and those who backed the wrong horse in the presidential elections are sharpening their knives.

Not yet daring to openly attack Chirac, they are after Juppe as his closest collaborator, as the fall guy. He may, some say, be the smartest man in France, but he is a dry technocrat lacking the human and political touch.

"The French need a dream, hope and passion," former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua said this week, seeing an opening for a comeback in French politics after abandoning Chirac during the election campaign.

"They need to be talked to with love, not just of interest rates and deficit."

The strikers demand Juppe withdraw his austerity plan. He firmly refuses. Still, having marched all their troops up the hill, both government and strikers are gambling on their side as they waltz around each other looking for a way out.

The strikes promise to go on until one or both flinch and they begin to compromise. A hope increased on Thursday with Juppe's nomination of the mediator in the rail strike.

The commuters who get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, the moms and dads wondering how to get to work and what to do with the kids, the walkers with sore feet like Yvette, are simply tired, waiting to see what happens _ next week if not this.