When American air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981, President Reagan fired them for breaking the law. French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac cannot do the same to rebellious train workers. As a result, their toughening strike threatens to destroy his government and its Reagan-style free-enterprise ideals. Unlike strikes by federal workers in the United States, stoppages in the public sector are legal in France. But the differences go further. While the air controllers' action crumbled under the weight of public reproach and swift presidential action, the now 20-day-long French strike - already the longest since 1968 - is gaining support and strength.
The communist-dominated General Labor Confederation (CGT) trade union has called for the entire public sector to stay off the job tomorrow. Over the weekend, thousands of holiday vacationers weathered long waits in train stations as police clashed with strikers throughout the country (see Page 12). Now in addition to the limited train service, the French may have to go without ferries, airports, city subway service, and electricity and gas in their homes as the CGT has planned for some symbolic work stoppages in these areas this week. A strike began yesterday in the Paris subway.
For Mr. Chirac, the dangers are clear. Holding out could provoke a crippling ``winter of discontent,'' much like the one in Britain in 1978-79 which contributed to the fall of the Labour government. Moderate union leaders are warning that they may not be able to check worker anger.
``It's a crazy machine that we no longer control,'' warned Andr'e Bergeron, the head of Force Ouvri`ere, a trade union that has questioned the continuation of the strike. He was referring to the way the strike began as a wildcat walkout, organized at first without the participation of the major unions, and then escalated against union orders into occupations of train tracks and switching areas. ``Now,'' Mr. Bergeron concluded, ``I fear everything.''
It could prove just as dangerous to give in as to stand tough. Commentators say the prime minister would suffer a major blow to his credibility, already damaged by the defeat inflicted by student demonstrators who forced him to withdraw a proposed university reform barely a month ago.
Political problems aside, another retreat would threaten his government's entire economic program. Since some 4.5 million people work for the French state or the state-run industries, government officials say any high pay settlement in the public sector could spoil the country's anti-inflation fight. In 1986, inflation was halved to little more than 2 percent.
The pressure already is being felt in the foreign-exchange markets. During the last week, the franc has fallen to its limit against the deutsche mark within the European Monetary System, prompting speculation of an imminent devaluation.
While Finance Minister Edouard Balladur has responded that ``there will be no change in our economic policy,'' he acknowleged that the strikes are ``raising worries abroad on the solidity and permanence of our economic policy.''
These worries stem, for a large part, from the government's penchant for retreating when challenged. The railwaymen originally focused their demands on a merit-pay plan, which would make performance rather than age the main standard for promotion. On Dec. 29, Jacques Douffiagues, France's transportation minister, announced the plan's ``suspension.''
But the strike continued, with the railwaymen switching their focus to pay issues. Mr. Douffiagues says that the government remains willing to discuss issues concerning work conditions, but it will not budge ``one iota'' on its offer of a 3 percent wage increase for 1987.
Tough words and all, the government's weak position resembles its awkward handling of the ill-fated student affair. The two conflicts set an avowedly free-market government against a powerful economic lobby over measures that were mostly symbolic.
Backed by teachers' unions, the students forced the government to withdraw a bill to make admission to French universities more selective, even though selection for universities already is widespread. Merit pay on the railroads aroused high emotions when it was put in a formal package, even though it, too, was quietly being applied.
The blunders illustrate how Chirac misjudged the country's mood, say analysts such as Lib'eration's Serge July and Le Monde's Andr'e Fontaine. After coming to power last spring, says Mr. July, the new prime minister ``has trampled like an elephant on porcelain'' by trying to brutally end France's traditional urge for government assistance. Worse yet, writes Mr. Fontaine, Chirac's lack of consultations with interest groups has served to strengthen the country's corporatist tendencies.
The upshot has been to strengthen the prime minister's opponents. Critics within conservative ranks such as former Prime Minister Raymond Barre, who have argued all along that radical Reaganism is not suited for France, are benefiting from the affair.
So are the leftist opponents. The communist CGT union has found its first popular rallying issue in years. More discreetly, Socialist President Francois Mitterrand has shown his sympathy for the government's opponents. On New Year's Day, he received a delegation of 150 striking workers and their families. Only the prime minister, Mr. Mitterrand told them, has the power to meet their demands.
The implication was clear: Unless Chirac can put an end to France's social wars, the President may have to find a new prime minister or call new elections.