Test of Chirac's mettle

RONALD REAGAN told the air traffic controllers who was boss, and Margaret Thatcher faced down the striking coal miners. Now Jacques Chirac is having to deal with a three-week-old rail strike, the longest French work stoppage since 1968. But even if the French premier does as (relatively) well with his challenge as his counterparts did with theirs, he faces some rough going in the months ahead. And if he can't face down the strikers, his quest for the presidency of France will have had a major setback.

The present round of industrial action began Dec. 18 as a wildcat strike by railway workers. The unions have since climbed aboard, and the strike has disrupted not only holiday travel but industry as well. Yesterday saw a one-day general strike that snarled mass transit and blacked out homes and offices. Further actions are planned.

All this comes unfortunately close on the heels of a disastrous attempt at ``university reform.'' Students rioted in response to the proposals of Mr. Chirac's conservative government, and a young man died - as never happened during even the worst of the upheavals of 1968. Chirac backed off, but not before losing considerable political credibility.

Another such debacle could inspire President Mitterrand to start looking for another premier. The Chirac government has already backed down on the merit-pay proposal that first sparked the rail strike, which is now focused on demands for improved working conditions.

But in an unusual meeting of his entire Cabinet yesterday, Chirac announced his intention to stick with his economic policies, including the tight cap on wage increases for employees of state-owned enterprises, which has been a major factor in the current unrest. Meanwhile, Mitterrand, his popularity high, has been making oracular pronouncements about the need to fight inflation, on one hand, but also to meet the needs of the workers.

Under cohabitation - the arrangement by which France is governed by a President and a prime minister from opposing camps - the French are exploring unfamiliar political territory. Chirac is under particular pressure to make the experiment work. As with Reagan's and Thatcher's union confrontations, the events of the next few days could prove a decisive test of Chirac's mettle.

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