French pilots end strike

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AIR FRANCE pilots ended their 10-day strike yesterday, accepting terms which looked worse than those they rejected last week. The unexpected collapse of the strike, after secret all-night negotiations, was a coup for the management of Air France, and for the French government.

The pilots' climb-down vindicates the tougher line taken by the airline, with the government's encouragement, since the weekend. It also follows angry noises from other Air France employees, who accused the pilots of "blackmail" and of threatening their livelihoods.

It will take a couple of days for Air France to return to normal services but the great majority of special internal flights promised for the World Cup should be honoured.

The government made it clear earlier this week that it was prepared to tolerate the embarrassment of the strike dragging on indefinitely into the World Cup. It calculated that the damage to France's reputation as a modern, welcoming nation had already been done.

This, in effect, took the controls of the dispute from the pilots' hands. Both sides claimed victory yesterday. The pilots said they had fought off the threat of a mandatory pay cut; the airline said it had achieved its target of a pounds 50m-a-year saving in its pilots' wage bill.

As long as the settlement does not provoke a series of "me-too" demands from other employees, Air France should now be able to proceed without further turbulence to its partial privatisation this autumn.

Significantly, it appears that the settlement has been achieved without a bail-out, or subsidy, from the government. Something of the kind was discussed last week but blocked by the finance minister, Dominique Strauss- Kahn.

Air France had asked its pilots to take a 15 per cent pay cut, to help finance the purchase of new aircraft and to help it cope with increased competition between European Union airlines.

In return, pilots were offered shares in the part-privatised company. It was agreed yesterday that this deal should be voluntary. Pilots who accepted the shares would have their wage cut restored after seven years. Pilots who refused the shares would have their wages frozen for seven years.

An almost identical deal, with slightly better terms, was refused by the pilots last week.