Chirac on the retreat following train strike and student protests

Jacques Chirac is tripping. After coming to power last spring, the French prime minister grabbed the initiative, even surviving a wave of terrorism with his popularity intact. But then came last month's student demonstrations, followed by this week's train strike.

The troubles have forced the government to retreat from much of its legislative program. If they continue, analysts say his administration could be left in tatters.

The strike represented the first significant labor action against the conservative Chirac government, indeed the first significant labor action in several years, and it could not have come at a worse time.

Thousands of holiday vacationers were stranded in train stations throughout the country. With subways down, Paris was snarled with traffic as Christmas shoppers rushed to make their last-minute purchases.

By itself, the work action did not represent a serious threat. Coming just after the student protests, though, it made Mr. Chirac look vulnerable in a way that will increase his friends' uncertainty and his opponents' determination. The normally pro-government Le Figaro warned in a front-page editorial that the government's troubles stemmed from the impression of weakness. After massive student strikes and resulting police violence, Chirac withdrew the controversial university reform. He also postponed much of the rest of the government's legislative program, including bills tightening the procedure for immigrants to acquire French nationality and bringing the private sector into prison construction.

In addition to pressure from the center, both left and right are poised to attack. The extreme-right National Front is trying to lure away Chirac supporters by arguing that the prime minister has been too weak in his dealings with both the students and workers.

At the same time, the socialists and communists are trying to jump on to the bandwagon of protest. Both the student and train strikes began as wildcat actions without the support of the established unions. As soon as they spread, however, both the socialist and communist unions endorsed them.

Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand may end up the big winner. In recent weeks, he has begun sniping at his prime minister, refusing to sign a decree putting into effect a law on more flexible working hours. Chirac is a ``man who has qualities,'' he noted sarcastically, adding for good measure that ``he needs to know how and when to employ them.''

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