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Protests in France reveal exasperation as a lingering recession takes its toll

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1984



Paris

This past weekend was supposed to be the start of a week-long winter vacation in France. But angry truckers blocked roads to the Alps, stopping traffic. Skiers were forced to abandon their cars and seek shelter or to make their way on foot.

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In Brittany, on the other side of the country, 300,000 people jammed the streets of Rennes to protest a government plan to regulate Roman Catholic schools.

Such fury indicates a mood of exasperation in France as such diverse groups as farmers, teachers, and steelworkers stage a variety of protests.

Put together, the actions show a mood that commentators are calling ras-le-bol. Colloquially translated, that means, ''I've had it up to here.''

On the front page of the respected daily Le Monde columnist Bruno Frappant cited ''the exacerbation of petty interests'' and warned that ''national unity appears to be simply a chain of separate egoisms.''

As Frappant suggests, such separate egoisms are unlikely to coalesce into a broad, well-organized revolt on the scale of the student uprising of l968. The unions are not throwing their weight behind the protests this time. Nor are the protestors questioning the legitimacy of the entire political system. Rather, specific complaints dominate their anger.

Take the truckers. Although they have caused chaos throughout France, their blockades have failed to create a complete political crisis for the government. The opposition, which often questions the Socialist government's legitimacy, refused to support what many Frenchmen saw as a ''temper tantrum.''

But even if protests are a way of life to the French, more anger than usual is spilling onto the streets these days. And many believe the nation's social relations could become more tense in coming weeks.

''Something new is coming over the French workers,'' Henri Krasucki, leader of the country's largest union, the CGT, told a small group of American reporters last week. ''They are unhappy, and this could go a long way.''

The anger stems from a deteriorating economy. While America basks in an upturn and most of Europe exhibits cautious optimism, France expects no growth this year.

Unemployment is predicted to rise. Purchasing power will decrease. So will social benefits.

Before this year, the Socialist government was able to blunt the effects of the recession. After coming to power in l981, it practiced an expansionary fiscal policy. Even after this free spending proved disastrous for the trade balance and for inflation, Socialist austerity continued liberal subsidies to ailing industries.

Last spring, though, the government announced a program to modernize French industry. This meant slimming or even closing down unproductive factories.

The ax fell first on coal. A government plan to make the industry viable by cutting production, phasing out jobs, and closing pits caused protests. On Monday, coalworkers began a two-day strike.

Similar problems plague other industries, most prominently the automobile trade. When Peugeot announced late last year a plan to lay off some 3,000 workers, the government approved the firings. But they could be put into effect only after a violent protest.

The farmers have also been violent. Worried that the Socialists will compromise on their subsidies from the Common Market, earlier this month they hijacked trucks containing rival British meat imports and set pigs loose on the highways.

Civil servants and defenders of private schools have been more peaceful in their demonstrations. But the truckers ended any government hopes for more polite protests.

The blockades started in southeast France at the end of last week. Despite government denunciations and efforts by soldiers and police to clear the roads, they quickly spread throughout the country.

The government must stop discriminating against them, the drivers argued. High taxes and restrictions on driving hours show that the government favors rail rather than road transport.

On Tuesday, the government opened talks with the truckers, who ended most blockages around the country.