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Rail Workers Join Pilots’ Strike

June 4, 1998

PARIS (AP) _ Air France officials sat down for talks with striking pilots Thursday, hoping to break a deadlock that has become a public relations disaster for France ahead of the World Cup.

Several hundred striking pilots, their arms crossed and dressed in full uniform, stood outside the airline’s Paris headquarters as officials arrived for the session, which was expected to continue well into the night.

The pilots have been off work for four days, and are prepared to strike for at least 11 more _ coinciding with the start of the June 10-July 12 soccer championship, which is expected to attract an estimated 1 million visitors.

With the opening games just six days away, France faced widening labor disputes.

One Paris subway workers’ union staged a partial strike Thursday, but disruptions were minor, with only some delays reported. Rail workers were also striking in the southern Provence-Riviera region until Friday, and the Communist-led CGT union organized protest marches in Paris.

Baggage handlers have been on strike for three days at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and other pay disputes threatened to paralyze trains from Friday through the weekend. Airline mechanics also planned a walkout.

The striking baggage handlers amused American tourist Amanda Adams from Minneapolis, who called them ``hilarious.″

Her hometown friend Sally Schmeising added, ``They mess everything up to show how important they are.″

But the transport woes were causing embarrassment and anger among French officials who feared for the country’s image.

Michel Charasse, a Socialist senator, accused the pilots of being ``egotistical, and not loving their country.″

``It’s a question of putting yourself before France,″ he said in an interview with radio station Europe 1.

Leading conservative lawmaker Philippe Seguin said the pilots strike risked making France ``the laughing stock of the entire world.″

Few members of the public showed sympathy for the pilots, whose average salary of $160,000 a year makes them among the world’s highest-paid pilots. They are striking to protest a company plan to give them stock in exchange for $83 million in pay cuts.

``It’s typically French, raising hell like that, and they pick just the right time to do it,″ said Christophe Monot, a shirt shop salesman.

``It’s unacceptable. It doesn’t make us look good,″ said Yvette Goupil, shaking her head as she sliced bread in her bakery.

Referring to the new talks, pilots union spokesman Christian Paris predicted ``significant advances.″

The strike posed a big test for the Socialist-government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But the government was standing firm.

The airline ``has the full support of the government,″ the Socialist finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, told the National Assembly.

Commenting for the first time on the strike, President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday called on both sides to ``show proof of their responsibility″ in the dispute as France prepares to become ``the host country of the planet.″

Despite the strike, Air France, the World Cup’s official carrier, has guaranteed transport for the 32 nations taking part.

Air France said 17 percent of its usual long-distance flights took off Thursday, along with 30 percent of its short and medium-distance routes from Charles de Gaulle Airport and 40 percent from Orly.

The carrier, which managed to report a profit in the last two years, says it is losing $16.7 million a day during the strike.

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