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West: Strikes To Disrupt World Cup In France

Prague, 8 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Forty-eight hours before the opening of the World Cup in France (June 10, 1600), it looks certain that an on-going strike by pilots for the state-owned Air France airline and threatened walk-outs by other transportation workers will disrupt at least the start of the month-long soccer tournament.

Just how much trouble the strikes -- and a continuing serious threat of terrorist attacks -- will disturb the more than half-a-million foreign visitors and over 1.5 million French due to attend the Cups' matches remains uncertain. But that there will be disruption and discomfort for the fans was made virtually certain over the weekend when negotiations between the pilots protesting a planned wage-cut and Air France officials broke down, assuring the strike would today go into its second week. Equally important, France's leftist-coalition government backed the company's stand and refused any direct intervention in the dispute, which the pilots had sought.

On Saturday, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin expressed confidence that "the World Cup will go ahead as usual." French and European fans didn't need planes to get them to the Cup's 64 matches in 10 French cities, Jospin said, and other airlines instead of Air France would bring in those outside the continent. "It's not the World Cup that concerns me," said the premier. "It's the recovery underway at the company and its future."

Four years ago Air France was close to bankruptcy. France's previous conservative government then brought in a new chief executive, Christian Blanc, to turn the company's fortunes around and eventually to privatize it. Other West European nations, notably Britain and Germany, have in recent years privatized their once unprofitable state airlines, which are now making money for their staffs and outside stockholders. But when Jospin canceled privatization plans last year Blanc, who had brought Air France into the black ($414 million profit) for the first time in eight years, resigned in protest. Four months ago, the leftist government decided to sell 20 percent of Air France to employees and private investors later this year.

What triggered the pilots' strike, deliberately timed to coincide with the run-up to the World Cup, was the company's projected cuts of about one-fifth in their salaries over the next several years. Air France pilots earn an average annual salary (with benefits) of $123,000, up to 40 percent more than pilots at other major European airlines like British Airways and Lufthansa. The pilots, who say they work longer hours than their British and German counterparts, refused a company offer to replace lost income with stock options when partial privatization takes place.

No doubt, the French pilots were counting not only on sympathy from the government but also from the public at large, which in the past has often supported walk-outs by lower-paid truck drivers and subway personnel that tied up the country. But in both cases, the pilots seemed to have severely misjudged reactions to their walk-out. In the National Assembly last week, Communist Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said bluntly that, in his words, "France, the company and the World Cup must not be held hostage" to the pilots' demands. And the most recent public-opinion poll (published yesterday in the newspaper "Journal de Dimanche" showed only 17 percent of French people strongly supporting the pilots, compared with 41 percent who backed truckers during a nationwide road blockade late last year.

Probably in an attempt to gain some public good will, the pilots last night offered to rescue soccer fans stranded abroad by piloting special flights without salary to get them to the Cup. Air France officials said they would study the proposal. But this morning, French government mediator Bernard Stasi called the offer unacceptable. The Cup, Stasi said in a French radio interview (Europe Number 1), was "a party that France is laying on for the world, and anything that might spoil the party would be a crime against France."

But judging by the chaos yesterday at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris, the party has already been spoiled somewhat. Baggage handlers there, who had used the pilots' strike to obtain a bonus during the Cup, were back at work. But because technicians looking for similar largesse left conveyor belts unattended and turned off the air-conditioning system, most arriving passengers had to find their own baggage and in the stuffy terminals there were angry confrontations between travelers and staff. In addition, railroad ticket inspectors renewed their strike movement, causing cancellations of three out of four trains in main-line trains in some areas of France. And a union of train engineers is calling for a strike in the Paris area, where the first Cup game (Brazil versus Scotland) is due to be held Wednesday. As if all this was not enough, there was evidence that the threat of terrorist action during the Cup had not been entirely eliminated by the round-up late last month of almost 100 suspected Islamic extremists in France and four other West European nations. This morning, French police detained for questioning another seven suspects who, the Interior Ministry said, may have been planning attacks during the tournament. The head of World Cup security, Walter Gagg, admitted terrorism was his biggest concern. He said, "the terrorists know there is no bigger platform for them than the World Cup."