PARIS — THERE are decisive moments in the life of nations, and France is living through one of them.
It's close to the endgame for a strike that has slowed transportation in Paris to a crawl and drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters across the nation to the streets.
The strike, now in its third week, gained momentum yesterday as students and airline workers joined transport and other public-sector workers in marches to protest the government's plan to restructure the railroads and cut social security.
But temperatures are low, commuters are tired, and the strikers are drawing down both their savings and the support of Jacques Q. Public they enjoyed when the strike started on Nov. 24. On Wednesday, strikers in post offices and telecommunications began returning to work.
More significantly, private-sector workers have yet to rally to the cause. Without their clout, strikers can only hope for some face-saving solution.
Whatever the outcome, this strike has posed a choice for France as starkly as it has been posed since World War II. For French Prime Minister Alain Juppe, it's a choice between modernity or decline - between old unions defending old privileges and the reforms needed for future growth.
''Without reform, we will have taken the path of decline, slowly and inevitably,'' Mr. Juppe told the French National Assembly on Tuesday. ''A nation can't live freely, encumbered by debt.''
For strikers, the choice is between a future with guarantees and one without. Strikers say they are not just defending privileges, but insisting on rights and benefits that should be available to all - especially the right to work.
''Is a modern country one with 3 million unemployed? One that can't afford a public service?'' asks railroad striker Claudio Serenelli. ''If so, we don't want it.''
''For the first time [since World War II], we are seeing a rollback of social gains,'' he adds. ''It's a lie that the country has no money. They found $100 million to bail out the bank Credit Lyonnais and to set off [nuclear] bombs at the end of the world. It's not a question of money, it's a question of priorities.''
Railway workers, who spearheaded this strike, often speak of past struggles and hard-won gains not to be given up lightly, such as the right to retire at 50. (British railroad workers retire at 65.)
While benefits are high, salaries are lower than for comparable work in the private sector, transport strikers say. Moreover, the average life expectancy of a railroad worker in France is 57, not 73 like the rest of the nation. That discrepancy was once due to the hardships of working around steam-powered engines. Today, it's the result of irregular work schedules, eating on the run, and being away from the regular rhythms of family life, they say.
''We've lost 73,000 workers in the last 10 years, and seen our buying power drop 20 percent. We are not privileged workers,'' says Yannick Le Bonhomme, head of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) railway union at Paris's northern train station.
''The Maastricht Treaty is massively questioned by the French,'' he says, referring to the 1992 blueprint for strengthening the European Union that would force France and other member state to pare down national spending to meet targets for a single European currency.
''We have the best benefits for railroad workers in Europe. Brussels [the EU capital] wants to bring us to the lowest point,'' he adds.
Following the US
''France tends to follow the United States,'' says Alain Bord, CGT secretary for railway workers in the Paris region. ''You're losing your middle class. We don't want our future to be worse than the present.''
Both strikers and those opposing the strike say they are troubled that the young can't find jobs (46 percent of French youth are unemployed) and that workers over 40 who their lose jobs may not find others. Employment ads in French newspapers specify age ceilings.
In a recent survey, more than 70 percent of French polled said they expected the future to be worse than the present. And the most frequent comment on the streets is J'ai ras le bol (''I'm fed up'').
''I don't understand the sinister mood, the moroseness that is settling in this country,'' Juppe said in a televised address to the nation. ''Are we really appreciating the fact that we are French? And I simply pose this question: Is there a single country in the world where you would rather live than in France?''
''It depends on which France you live in,'' says Jean-Francois Cordier, an unemployed youth who says he is driving a cab until he can find a job. ''A house in the 16th [district] of Paris ... and a garden is not the same France as an HLM (public housing) in a suburb.''
''I'm 33 and it's very difficult to get a job,'' he adds. ''I can't afford to strike, but I'm glad they can.''
'To the end'
This week, Workers Force (FO) leader Marc Blondel appealed to the public to help strikers carry their fight ''to the end.'' None of the major unions have strike funds, and workers have been thrown back on their own resources. Some strike headquarters report gifts of food and small checks from individuals and nonstriking unions, but strikers privately say the amounts are not enough to sustain a long strike.
For Mr. Blondel, and other top strike leaders, the key issue is what they will have to show to their memberships at the end of a long and costly strike.
The big winner on the union side could be Nicole Notat, the head of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), who supports elements of the Juppe plan and urged her 617,000 membership to stay out of this strike. She has been lionized by conservatives as an example of constructive trade unionism.
The prime minister is staking his own political future and that of his government on the fact that the cutbacks needed to ''modernize'' France will reverse the nation's employment picture. France has been embarked on a tight monetary policy since 1983 in order to qualify for a single European currency. During that period, unemployment has risen past 11 percent.
But critics charge that what is now blocking French modernizing is more than intransigent unions.
''In France we still have a vision of the public sector that goes back to Louis XIV,'' says French economist Jean-Dominique Lafay. ''Juppe is squarely in the tradition of French high civil servants who believe they can run the country correctly. In 1995, taxes and social charges will be higher than they have ever been, and that's a classic measure of the power of the state.''
''Earlier, what blocked French modernization were specific backward sectors, such as steel,'' he adds. ''Today, it is the state itself.''