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Air France Officials, Union Meet

June 5, 1998

PARIS (AP) _ Optimistic soccer officials predicted Friday that France would stage the championship of the world’s most popular sport despite labor disputes that have crippled the country.

With the strike by Air France pilots in its fifth day, airline officials were meeting late Friday in another round of negotiations to try to end the walkout, which has convulsed the country’s transportation system.

At stake is the reputation of both the airline and the nation _ as well the travel plans of an estimated 1 million people expected to visit France to watch the 32-team World Cup tournament, which begins Wednesday.

Michel Platini, former French soccer great and co-president of the committee organizing the championship, acknowledged the French propensity for fractiousness, but said labor disputes would not wreck the five years of effort that have gone into planning the tournament.

``De Gaulle once said it was difficult to govern a country with 360 types of cheese. But we shall persevere,″ he said, referring to the late French leader, Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

Sepp Blatter, a candidate to head the sport’s most powerful body, FIFA, defiantly issued a guarantee.

``I can assure you that all 64 matches will be played and that the French will do everything possible to welcome the foreigners coming to France,″ said Blatter, who is Swiss.

Along with the pilots’ strike, fans arriving in France for Wednesday opener between Brazil and Scotland have been greeted with walkouts by ground mechanics, train drivers and baggage handlers.

Across the country, travelers were stranded Friday as several long-distance train services were canceled, offering no alternative to frustrated air travelers.

Hani Samaha, a 33-year-old Lebanese man looking to re-route his flight after one to the United Arab Emirates was canceled, said: ``I left France a long time ago. And every time I come back, it’s stressful.″

``Look at Air France’s publicity,″ he said pointing ro a company billboard trumpeting the carrier as the ``Official World Cup Airline″ at a ticket office on the Champs Elysees.

``It doesn’t do the French image much good, does it?″ he asked.

Despite the positive signs from sports officials, negotiators were less optimistic.

Air France’s pilots, among the most highly paid in the world, are protesting plans to give them company stock in exchange for $83 million in pay cuts.

The pilots are scheduled to strike for at least 15 days, and have said the stoppage could be extended, paralyzing the World Cup, which runs until July 12.

Air France, whose planes carry images of the stars of the World Cup, has pledged all teams will be transported during the tournament.