As strikes subside, French see political costs for Chirac

France's strike wave may be subsiding, but for how long and at what cost? These questions, analysts say, point out that right-wing Prime Minister Jacques Chirac may be left with a Pyrrhic victory. Despite having stood up to worker demands for salary increases, the analysts suggest that the premier has damaged his personal political prestige, torpedoed his Reagan-style free market economic approach, and divided the country.

``The trains will start running again,'' says Francois de Closets, a respected independent economist, ``but the society will be blocked.''

The news supports Mr. de Closets's contention. The two major national strikes, involving train engineers and electric workers, began to unwind over the weekend. Union officials concede that, feeling the financial pinch after three and a half weeks out of work, many striking railworkers have returned to their trains. The shorter electric power strike has almost ended since most unions have accepted the government's wage offer.

But the atmosphere remains tense. Mr. Chirac's neo-Gaullist party, along with the extreme-right National Front party, has organized large demonstrations in Paris and provincial towns to express the frustration of the ``silent majority'' against disruption caused by the strikes.

Financial problems underlying the unrest are worsening. Although the Chirac government managed to avoid a devaluation of the franc in Monday's realignment of the European Monetary System, the finance ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to increase the value of the West German mark by three percent. That move will raise the cost of German imports, putting pressure on inflation - and on worker salary demands.

Chirac insists that wage increases greater than three percent would fuel inflation and upset the country's economic balance. Many French citizens agree. In an opinion poll released yesterday by the magazine Le Point, 49 percent of those surveyed support the government stand. Union leaders say they worry about the public's growing antagonism toward their cause.

But such antagonism doesn't seem to translate into support for the prime minister. Even before the strikes began, polls showed that the percentage of people here expressing confidence in Chirac was falling fast. Political observers now suggest, despite the absence of precise evidence, that Chirac's popularity has fallen even further because of the strikes.

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