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Millions of French Workers Strike Over Government Austerity Program : Labor: Transportation, many services are crippled for a day. Plans to cut social benefits and budget deficit spark anger.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a sharp challenge to President Jacques Chirac’s austerity plans, millions of French workers struck for one day on Friday, crippling train, bus and air transport, and shutting banks, government offices, schools and even some hospitals.

The strike, the second major work stoppage this fall, was called by French union leaders to protest government plans to overhaul the 50-year-old social security system, one of Europe’s most generous, and save it from bankruptcy.

But it also reflected a more general, widespread anger over the government’s effort to slash the nation’s $64-billion budget deficit, a program that includes tax increases, spending cuts and wage freezes for the nation’s 5 million civil servants.

With Chirac’s party holding an overwhelming majority in Parliament, the only way his opponents can express their displeasure is on the streets.

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Hundreds of thousands of striking workers joined marches in Paris and other French cities. Among the protesters were members of unions whose leaders have supported the social security reforms, reflecting serious divisions between workers and labor leaders.

In the generally peaceful demonstrations, protesters walked past shuttered businesses, singing and chanting. One group of marchers in Paris sang, “Social security--we fought to gain it, we will fight to keep it.”

Others carried an array of posters. “La Securite,” read one, “c’est la vie” (Social security--it is life). “That’s enough,” another poster warned Prime Minister Alain Juppe, architect of the reforms. “Your country is going to explode.”

The 24-hour strike forced millions of commuters to endure lengthy traffic jams or to walk to work.

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Roads into Paris from the suburbs were backed up more than 10 miles in places, and fewer than one in five trains and buses were running. Neither mail nor newspapers were delivered Friday, and the strike appeared larger than a similar protest last month.

Unhappiness with the Chirac government has been growing steadily since the presidential elections in May. Opinion poll ratings for both the president and Juppe, his appointed prime minister, have fallen sharply as it has become clear that Chirac would be unable to fulfill campaign promises to reduce unemployment, now at more than 12%, and protect benefits for those still working.

Last week, Juppe unveiled an ambitious program to reform France’s social welfare system, pledging to halve its $12.3-billion deficit by next year and erase it by 1997. The plan was welcomed by financial markets, which regard the social security system as inefficient and extravagant.

Polls suggest majority support for the welfare reforms, which will help France qualify for the projected European monetary union. But the same polls show support for the strikes as well.

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Under Juppe’s proposals, social benefits will be frozen in 1996 and be taxed beginning a year later. Health insurance contributions will rise, and spending constraints will be placed on hospitals, doctors and drug companies.

In addition, civil servants will need to work for 40 years, as private sector workers now do, instead of the current 37 1/2 years, to qualify for a full pension.

A particular sore point for the French is the plan to increase taxes and social welfare contributions.

The French tax burden is already larger than any industrialized nation except Italy, and Chirac recently increased the value-added tax on goods and services from 18.6% to 20.6%.

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Government officials defended their reform plan Friday.

“We need the courage to reform social security, to control our deficits, the courage of reforming taxes and the universities,” Foreign Minister Herve de Charette said on French radio. “If we don’t, it will get worse.”

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Social Affairs Minister Jacques Barrot declared that “there is no alternative,” though he said Chirac and Juppe want to restart talks with union leaders in hopes of averting future strikes.

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But some unions vowed to keep up the pressure on the government, and another general strike has already been called for Tuesday.

But Chirac has said he is prepared to take bold steps toward reform, whether his opponents like them or not. And, with just six months gone in his seven-year term, he believes that he has plenty of time to test his reforms.

As the president put it recently, “I wasn’t elected to be popular.”

Times’ Paris Bureau researcher Sarah White contributed to this report.

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