Mitterrand unfazed by steel protest in France

The recession's full force swept over France Wednesday. Angry workers cut road, rail, and telephone links in the industrial Lorraine region to protest a government plan that would cost 1 in 4 French steelworkers his job.

The one-day work action capped a week of violence with workers ransacking public buildings and throwing rocks and bottles of acid at riot police.

But none of this rage moved Socialist President Franccois Mitterrand. Yesterday, in his third press conference since taking office, Mitterrand told the nation that the cutbacks were irreversible. Layoffs of tens of thousands of workers must continue, he said, if French industry was to modernize and become competitive internationally.

''Either France will be able to confront the competition or she will fall to the bottom of the road of decline,'' the President declared. ''I am resolved: We must construct a modern society.''

Politically, such capitalist toughness hurts. Parts of Mitterrand's own Socialist Party are griping, and the governing Communist-Socialist coalition is strained.

Four Socialist parliamentarians from Lorraine resigned from the party after the steel plan was released. They now plan to sit as independents.

Communist Party leader Georges Marchais was almost as bitter, calling the government's steel program ''a tragic error.'' But he said his party would stay in the government for now, and fight for a change in policy.

In ignoring the complaints, Mitterrand is betting that the Communists and the unions are too feeble to pose a serious threat to his power.

The Communists are in electoral decline. After winning more than 20 percent of the vote during the 1970s, they only won 16 percent in 1981. Polls now show them at 12 percent. Leaving the government would cast them once again, as in 1977, as destroyers of the left's coalition.

The unions are also weak. So far they have not been able to whip up widespread protest against the government's austerity program.

Still, the explosion of anger and violence over the steel plan shows the government's strategy is dangerous. If resistance mounts, Mr. Mitterrand may have no choice but to tone down his press conference's firmness.

A keen sense of betrayal lies behind Wednesday's rare display of union unity. Only 21/2 years ago, Mitterrand traveled to Lorraine and commiserated with the ''injustices'' suffered by the steel workers under the previous government, which cut 40,000 steel jobs between 1977 and 1981. He promised the publicly owned industries, including steel, would be ''the spear-head of industrial renovation and reconquest of the domestic market and, therefore, of the battle for jobs.''

This has proved impossible. Even after spending millions of francs to subsidize ailing heavy industries such as steel, the French could not compete with such developing countries as South Korea and Brazil. Excess capacity and excess manning remained.

By last year, the strain of the subsidies became too much for the economy. Inflation was in double digits and the trade deficit had soared to unprecednted heights. To correct these faults, Mitterrand introduced the stiffest austerity plan this country had ever experienced, raising taxes and cutting spending.

In December, the government let Peugeot lay off thousands of auto workers.

In January, it announced the closure of unprofitable coal mines. In February, the ax fell on the shipbuilders. And now some 25,000 steelworkers are scheduled to lose their jobs over the next four years.

''No French government has ever been so tough,'' said Paul Horne, European economist for Smith, Barney & Upham Co. ''If he continues this, he will definitely succeed in bringing inflation down, the trade deficit into surplus.''

''It's incredible,'' Mr. Horne said. ''A Socialist trying to out-Thatcher Thatcher.''

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