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After Five Days of Hassles, Ordinary French Fed Up With Strikes

November 28, 1995

ST. GERMAIN-EN-LAYE, France (AP) _ A fifth day of transit strikes put Micheline Dumazet right over the edge.

She’s the Avon lady in this town 15 miles west of Paris and normally makes her rounds by car. But with train workers striking again Tuesday, even local roads were clogged with traffic, forcing Dumazet to go by foot.

``Enough! It’s terrible, this strike,″ she huffed, pointing to her worn high heels. ``When will this end?″

That’s the question on the minds of millions. Strikes are practically a spectator sport in France, but patience is wearing thin as the country endures its most paralyzing walkouts in nearly a decade.

On Tuesday, other public employees joined transportation workers as their strike entered a fifth day. The workers are protesting government austerity policies aimed at getting France’s debt-ridden social security and health care system under control.

Thousands of strikers, joined by doctors and students, demonstrated across France. Police said 21,000 demonstrated in Paris, and about 20,000 rallied in Marseille.

Public transportation has ground to a virtual halt nationwide as the strikes cripple rail, subway and bus service. In the French capital, traffic jams of up to 20 miles fanned out from Paris like the spokes of a wheel.

Across France, mail delivery was scaled back, schools were closed and hospitals were providing only emergency services.

``It’s insane,″ said Gene LaMay, a minister in Villepreux, a suburb southwest of Paris. ``You can’t get anywhere or do anything. You have to wonder where all of this will leave us.″

Many white-collar workers simply stayed home and telecommuted, working on laptop computers and making conference calls. For them, the strikes have been more of an inconvenience than anything else.

Not so for many blue-collar workers, whose jobs depend on getting to work. Hundreds of thousands took to the roads in cars and motor scooters; others hitchhiked, cycled or simply walked.

Regional train service was sporadic in many parts of France, and few long distance trains between major cities were operating Tuesday. Those that did risked being stopped by pickets blocking rail lines.

Unions called for more public transport strikes Wednesday.

Estelle, a 22-year-old who came from the western city of Nantes for an interview for her first job, steamed in her business suit as she waited for a Paris subway train that was at least a half hour late. It took her five hours instead of the usual three to reach the French capital by train, and this was the final insult.

``I don’t support the strike. They already have enormous privileges _ they can’t be fired, and they’re getting too much,″ said Estelle, who would not give her surname.

Two major labor unions, the Communist-led General Confederation of Workers (CGT) and the Workers’ Force, are protesting plans to increase the number of years public sector workers must pay social security taxes before they can retire with full benefits.

Monday night, the conservative government of Prime Minister Alain Juppe exempted employees of the state-owned railway company.

In another attempt to appease railroad workers, Transport Minister Bernard Pons announced Tuesday the government would assume $7.4 billion of the railroad company’s $35 billion debt.

But union leaders rejected the latest offer, saying it wasn’t enough and that layoffs likely will make up the rest of the debt. The CGT called the offer ``odious blackmail.″

Tension arising from the government’s budget cutting has been growing especially since last week, when 100,000 students rallied across France, demanding more money for dilapidated state universities. More student demonstrations are planned Thursday.

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