Chirac firm as France stands still

The French government was standing firm last night as it braced for a new and possibly decisive day of national protest today against its proposed welfare reforms.

After an emergency cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, said there was no question of holding a referendum or dissolving parliament to settle the crisis, while the government spokesman Alain Lamassoure said the Prime Minister felt the strike action had now reached its peak. "If we hammer home a number of truths often enough, the vast majority of French people and many of those on strike today will realise that there are no grounds for a strike," he said.

President Jacques Chirac, speaking in the West African state of Benin on Sunday evening, insisted that the choice of reform rather than "fatalism" was his and that he would stand by it. His intervention provided the Prime Minister with urgently needed support but may also exclude the President from any mediating role.

As power workers, hospital staff and lorry drivers yesterday joined the nationwide strikes against the reform of France's 50-year-old welfare system, the trial of strength between the government and the unions appeared to be approaching a climax. Trade unions are urging private-sector workers to join public employees on strike and are calling for huge protests in the main towns and cities today.

Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of workers, students and trade- union activists are expected to join a protest march along the right bank of the Seine in central Paris while, at the National Assembly, on the left bank, Mr Juppe will mount his first full-scale defence of his reforms since the protests began.

Yesterday, with new groups of workers joining, or threatening to join, the strike and today's demonstration almost hourly, the government made its first attempt to limit the effects of the strikes on those who are still working. It hired 1,700 coaches to transport commuters from Paris suburbs into the capital and home again in the evening, and a boat service to connect the eastern and western extremities of the city centre. However, fewer than 400 coaches were available for the morning rush-hour.

The national rail service remains at a standstill, as does local public transport in Paris and several other cities. Airline workers again occupied the runways at Orly airport yesterday, blocking domestic air traffic for several hours. With 80 per cent of postal sorting offices now on strike, a few regions set up emergency services, but the country remained paralysed.

In the National Assembly today, Mr Juppe will answer a motion of censure tabled by the opposition Socialist group, breaking a silence on the reforms that has become deafening in recent days.

French revolt, pages 10, 11

Nato embraced, page 14

Leading article, page 18

Hamish McRae, page 22