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Parisians, Embittered by Strike, Get Set for Surly Christmas

December 12, 1995

PARIS (AP) _ Exhausted commuters stuffed into buses mired in rush-hour traffic. Cranky drivers pouncing on each other, fists flying. Christmas is 12 days away, but Parisians are hardly in the mood to celebrate.

The only people smiling along the Champs-Elysees these days seem to be Japanese tourists, among the few foreigners still brave _ or naive _ enough to visit the paralyzed City of Lights.

Three weeks into a strike by millions of subway drivers, postal workers and other government employees fighting a plan to cut their pensions and benefits, polls show most French sympathize with their plight.

But not in Paris.

``Christmas? Don’t make me laugh. It’s ruined,″ said Yann Chapuis, a shipping broker who usually takes the train to Le Havre on the English Channel three times a week for business. Now his commute by car is a nightmare.

``The railroad guys, I hate them now. They’re so selfish. For them, we’re like cattle,″ he fumed.

Cattle cars are exactly the image conveyed by the hundreds of private buses hired by the government to transport suburban commuters in France’s worst strike since the unrest of 1968.

They’re packed to the brim, with pale-faced passengers wrapped in heavy overcoats, their sleeping heads pressed against steaming windows. Passengers typically are up before dawn, and by 9:30 a.m. are still inching along in bumper-to-bumper Paris traffic.

Outside, it’s worse. Red-eyed pedestrians walk miles to work, weaving around cars and breathing exhaust. Even sidewalks aren’t safe. Motor scooters zip around walkers, jockeying for space.

Outside St.-Philippe du Roule church Tuesday morning, a man on a scooter cursed at a car driver who cut him off. The driver leaped out, slugging the rider in his helmeted head and knocking over the scooter. Two women rushed over to separate the two.

Such scenes occur daily now.

And then there are the unusual scenes like the woman in high heels and black fur coat hitchhiking Tuesday on Charles de Gaulle Avenue in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Near the Arc de Triomphe, a businesswoman tapped on the window of a compact Peugeot driven by an elderly woman, begging for a ride. They drove off together chatting. Smartly dressed women shuffled along in sneakers, an American habit that many Parisians once disdained.

``I’ve always been for the left, but now I hope (conservative Premier Alain) Juppe doesn’t back down,″ said writer-photographer Nicolas Jallot during a one-hour cross-town drive that normally takes 10 minutes.

``They’ve gotten too fat,″ he said of France’s 5.5 million public workers. ``They take us all hostage, and to top it off, they want to be paid for strike days.″

More than 50,000 strikers staged a noisy demonstration through Paris, one of many protests around the country Tuesday.

The Paris turnout was small, given the importance of the capital and its 10 million residents. But with plenty of wealthy people and few blue-collar workers, Paris is staunchly conservative _ and not striker-friendly.

That didn’t faze the protesters Tuesday. Banging drums, firing red flares and tooting horns, they demanded the unconditional withdrawal of Juppe’s austerity plan.

Juppe is trying to cut a $65 billion budget deficit in part by freezing pay and cutting benefits.

``It’s scandalous that today, with so much wealth around, the same ones always have to pay,″ a protester dressed as Santa Claus told Associated Press Television.

Many employees of private companies are paying for the strike with their jobs. Thousands have been laid off because businesses _ from auto factories to corner stores _ depend on trains to ship goods.

``They’re like irresponsible children,″ Gaude Bosshard, a retiree in suburban Sucy-en-Brie, said Tuesday of strike leaders.

``Even if the (postal) sorting centers were to reopen today, there’s so much backlog, if you mail presents they’ll never arrive on time. It’s not going to be a cheerful Christmas.″

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