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Strikebound French Struggle to Cope

December 7, 1995

LE VESINET, France (AP) _ It’s 5 a.m. and the windows of the government-leased bus are already all steamed up. So are the passengers inside.

Two weeks ago, before huge strikes began paralyzing France, most people measured their ride to work in minutes. Now they’re forced to rise before the roosters for an hours-long odyssey on car-choked roads.

``In France, we like to say, `C’est la vie,′ that’s life. But this is not a life,″ fumed Micheline Renaud, a Paris legal secretary. Like other 9-to-5ers, she’s become a 5-to-9er with a killer commute _ and an attitude to match.

Strikes are common in France, but they usually last a day and target one sector. This one, which has shut down public transportation since Nov. 24 and has affected mail delivery, airports, hospitals and schools, touches everyone _ from those on the picket lines to those on the sidelines.

Public workers are striking to protest the government’s planned overhaul of France’s costly cradle-to-grave social security system. Unions have revolted over the plan to freeze their workers’ wages and cut their retirement benefits.

``Everyone is more stressed, more nervous,″ said Florence Gehin, a married mother of two in Paris.

Public transportation remained paralyzed, although many postal and telephone workers were back on the job as the strike showed signs of losing steam.

Pleas for private-sector workers to join the strike have been largely ignored, and many public services never completely joined. Union leaders hope to reinvigorate the shutdown with protests today that included a brief shutdown of Orly Airport runways by demonstrators and a work slowdown by sympathetic air controllers.

The transit strike has hampered food deliveries, and grocery store shelves are growing more empty each day as shoppers hoard basic food like pasta, flour and sugar. When the subway stations closed, the homeless lost a warm place to spend the night.

Even animals are suffering; the Animal Protection Society said it has several hundred more dogs and cats than it can handle because people can’t get to the shelters to adopt a pet.

The focus has been on harried commuters, but striking workers have their own hardships. Deprived of strike pay, they’re getting by on personal savings until the walkout is settled.

``I can always eat bread, and I may have to if the strike goes much longer,″ said Luc Dubois, a striking railroad worker. He’s single, but his married colleagues with children are having a tougher time holding out.

``Kids need more than bread,″ he said, picketing near Saint Lazare train station.

Christmas trees sprayed with fake snow give the French capital a festive veneer. But festivities were far from commuters’ minds today as labor unions called for yet more demonstrations.

People are spending almost as much time getting to work as they do working once they get there. A few companies have hired helicopters to whisk their executives to work, but most workers and their bosses walk, cycle or even hitchhike.

Renaud’s ride begins at 5 a.m. in Le Vesinet, nine miles west of Paris, where she catches one of the 1,700 buses the government has leased to blunt the effects of the strike. She doesn’t get home until 9 p.m.

``I’m fed up, I tell you, completely fed up,″ Renaud grumbled to a chorus of ``oui’s″ from fellow passengers. There’s solidarity on her bus, and it’s not for the strikers.

Philosophy student Stephanie Monard is one of thousands of Parisians getting around the capital by water taxi. The government has hired about 20 ``bus boats″ to help shuttle people to work, and the famed glass ``Bateau Mouches″ tour boats offered free rides to commuters.

But the trip isn’t as romantic as it might seem. There’s an icy wind, the boats are jam-packed with standing room only, and it can be hard to find one heading in the right direction.

``It’s nice traveling by boat. The crews deserve thanks,″ Monard said. ``But the strikers should be ashamed. I wish someone would hand them the bill for all of this.″

The aggravation isn’t limited to Paris. To the south, in normally placid wine-making Burgundy, tempers are flaring and streets are snarled with traffic.

``It’s crazy,″ complained Philippe Le Boutilly, a taxi driver. ``The traffic moves like escargots.″

Yet for all the frustration, a curious esprit de corps has begun to emerge as the French proudly speak of their beloved ``Systeme D,″ a way to get by, a ``Plan B.″

Card games are commonly organized among strangers on the government-leased buses, and hotels are offering cut rates for stranded suburban commuters who double- or triple-up. Necessity is breeding the foreign concept of car pools.

Even the newspapers are getting into the act. To help hitchhiking commuters, the daily Le Parisien’s front page this week consisted of a STOP sign and the banner headline: ``I’m going to ------- (fill in the destination). Thanks!″

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