French transport strikes threaten to wreck World Cup

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THE World Cup could be thrown into chaos by a series of French transport strikes timed to coincide with the arrival of millions of foreign football fans.

The most serious threat comes from the air. Air France pilots are threatening to strike in the first two weeks of next month, in the run-up to the Cup, when 2,500,000 extra visitors are making their way to France. Other threats to strike during the tournament have been issued by railwaymen and lorry- drivers, both renowned for their militancy and ability to paralyse parts of the country.

An all-out air strike could cause enormous delays for foreign fans travelling long distances to the Cup and would paralyse the principal network of internal flights. The size of France, and the fact that, unlike previous World Cups, teams are moving around the country rather than being based in one region, makes internal flights an essential complement to road and rail travel between the 10 France 98 venues.

The dispute between Air France and its 3,600 pilots concerns proposed pay cuts. The strike is supposed to end on 15 June, five days after the Cup starts, but some union leaders are warning that it could go into a third or even fourth week.

The Transport Minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, a Communist former union leader, is to meet heads of the unions involved this week to try to clear the runway.

But the unions, which organised a preliminary two-day stoppage at the weekend, are in a belligerent mood. "An internal ballot shows 98 per cent of our members are prepared for a long and tough action," said Christian Paris, the spokesman for the largest pilots' union, the SNPL.

The pilots have been working to rule and delaying flights for three weeks.

The dispute arises partly from EU legislation forcing more competition between European airlines and partly from plans to sell part of Air France this autumn. It says it cannot compete effectively while its pilots' salaries are higher than those in other countries (20 per cent more than British Airways; 40 per cent more than Lufthansa). Pilots have been asked to take a 15 per cent salary cut over three years in return for shares in the part- privatised company. The six unions involved have refused even to discuss this offer.

Other threats to strike during the World Cup have been issued by a small section of lorry-drivers and by railwaymen. The lorry drivers' section of the Force Ouvriere (FO) union is threatening to renew during the World Cup the lorry blockades which have disrupted French roads twice in the past two years. But FO represents only a minority of drivers. A dispute between rail unions and the SNCF, which caused cancellations and delays in some parts of France yesterday, also threatens World Cup travellers. But the transport minister is confident this dispute will be resolved before the opening match on 10 June.

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