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More French Workers Join Strike To Block Welfare Overhaul Efforts

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post

France's most serious industrial disruption in a decade escalated Monday as students, teachers and hospital workers joined a wave of transportation strikes intended to block an effort by the government to overhaul the country's expensive welfare system.

For the second successive week, there was no train, bus or subway service across the country. Around Paris, people struggled to get to work on foot, bicycles or roller skates, as a record total of more than 300 miles of traffic jams snarled roads into the capital.

Seeking to ease the plight of commuters, the government hired a fleet of 1,500 private buses to help move people into the capital from the suburbs. A dozen large riverboats also were mobilized to ferry people to various points in Paris along the Seine River, and some of the tour boats that ply the river were giving free rides.

Prime Minister Alain Juppe convened an emergency Cabinet meeting Monday night to discuss the crisis but showed no signs of buckling under the pressure of the intensifying work stoppages, which threaten to inflict serious damage on the world's fourth-biggest economy.

Spokesman Alain Lamassoure emphasized the government's determination "to see through" the reforms that Juppe insists are necessary to salvage the welfare and pension systems from potential bankruptcy.

But he also reaffirmed its "readiness for dialogue" with striking workers and students, whose nascent alliance could emerge as one of the most serious internal threats to the country since the 1968 riots that shook the French state and helped drive President Charles de Gaulle from office a year later.

At issue is a $64 billion deficit in the social security system, which Juppe hopes to slash by raising income taxes and increasing the number of years government employees must work to receive full pensions.

The massive disruptions may soon grow worse. Dockers and truckers have threatened to start blocking ports and roads later this week, which could impel the government to send in armed troops to prevent fuel and other shortages. Electricity, gas and postal workers already have joined the work stoppages, which seem likely to spread to the private sector.

The government insists it will not back down from its reform package, which it says is necessary to reduce huge deficits and enable France to qualify for the European Union's plan for a single European currency.