THE French transport strike that was supposed to have been just another blip on the political screen is now threatening to crash the system.
When, on the eve of the strike, conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe ad-libbed that 2 million people on the streets would bring down his government, even union leaders dismissed the possibility.
But as the strike heads into its 11th day, the prime minister's meltdown number no longer seems so out of reach. In a poll taken last week, 62 percent supported the strikers in their rejection of Mr. Juppe's plan to restructure the railroads and the welfare system. And 65 percent of those surveyed said they had no confidence in the government's ability to resolve the crisis.
After an unsuccessful meeting with Transportation Minister Bernard Pons last Friday, unions called on transport workers to "continue and amplify" their actions. On Saturday, Marc Blondel, leader of the Force Ouvrier (FO) transport union called for workers nationwide to join an "unlimited general strike."
Teachers, postal employees, and workers in hospitals, airlines, the Bank of France, automaker Renault, telecommunications, and electric-power services are expected to join striking transport workers and students this week. Limited actions last week shut down half of the nation's postal distribution centers. and reduced electric power production by about 50 percent.
Truckers, meanwhile, threaten to hold traffic to a crawl along main highways - though the plan is disavowed by union spokesmen.
Even without the truckers, gridlock has become a way of life for Parisians many of whom have taken to bicycles, Rollerblades, or sturdy walking shoes to avoid hours blocked in traffic.
A drive across Paris that once took half an hour now takes at least three, says Elaine Mazel, who says she spent an average of eight hours a day last week to drive to her part-time job. "Eight hours of commute for four hours of work: I've about had it," she says. "Something has got to change. We have the right to work."
Some 3,000 people joined Ms. Mazel at a rally to protest blocked public transportation in Paris. The meeting had little advance press, and organizers expected so few participants that they did not apply for a permit to march through city streets.
Protest movements on both sides of this strike are tapping deep levels of discontent. France now has more than 3 million unemployed and one of the highest tax rates in the industrial world. Nearly half of youths age 16 to 20 are unemployed. And the nation now faces the possibility of a new recession: Economic growth in the last two quarters slowed to 0.2 percent. The economy is expected to shrink 1.5 percent in the next quarter.
"We are approaching a situation similar to May 1968," when student and labor unrest erupted, says French economist Alain Parguez of the Paris-based Institute of Applied Mathematics and Economics.
The conservative government appears determined to ride out the crisis. "I will not give in," Juppe has repeated since the start of the strike Nov. 24.
France is committed to cut its budget deficit from 5.75 percent of gross domestic product last year to 3 percent by the end of 1997 to meet terms for European monetary union. The railroads and the welfare system are big-ticket items, with deficits of $35 billion and $12.8 billion respectively. Juppe's plan includes raising the retirement age for some transport workers and downsizing rail service nationwide.
A collapse of government resolve is likely to be viewed severely by financial markets, which soured last week. "The stakes are very high," says J. Paul Horne, managing director of the Paris branch of Smith Barney Inc., an investment house. "Global capital markets have an instant effect on exchange rates. The slightest sense of France's government backing off the challenge will show up in exchange rates immediately, and the spread between the franc and the German mark will widen."
The ultimate arbiter of this conflict, analysts say, will be the French public. France's trade union movement now includes less than 10 percent of French workers and is deeply divided. Though unpopular in recent years, polls signal a labor comeback in public opinion.
French students, protesting overcrowded universities, are planning to join the unions in a demonstration they have called for Tuesday in Paris. They want more government spending on run-down facilities.