Paris faces biggest protest since 1968

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Two bellboys stood in their elegant uniforms in front of a posh hotel near the Opera, clenching their fists in salute to the proletariat filing past. "The railway workers and commuters united will never be defeated," chanted 50,000 throats, straining to crown the revolt of 1995 with a catchy slogan.

The commuters, alas, were unable to reciprocate the railway workers' solidarity, detained as they were by a public transport strike that has crippled trains throughout the country and caused 100-mile tailbacks along the main arteries of France. But even without them there were enough people in the centre of Paris yesterday to produce the largest demonstration yet against the government's economic pro- gramme. It was the biggest protest, and the worst disruption, in the capital since the summer of 1968.

Some 50,000 workers and students, thumping drums and swaying to the beat of Communist rap, painted the boulevards red with flares and banners. As Alain Juppe prepared to defend his government's austerity plan at the National Assembly on the Left Bank, the other side of the Seine reverberated with shouts of "Juppe resign". Had the Prime Minister glanced across the river, he might have seen an effigy of himself dangling from a rope, or a picture showing him and President Jacques Chirac half-way down a lavatory pan.

As night fell, the casseurs, a fringe element always ready to exploit public protests, began overturning cars at St Lazare station and smashing shop windows on seedy Clichy boulevard. In the western city of Nantes 20 policemen were injured in clashes with students last night.

"We oppose the Juppe plan because it destabilises the railways and takes away our social protection," said Fernand Andre, an engineer at the high-speed train maintenance depot in Villeneuve, outside Paris. Mr Andre, a shop steward of the Communist CGT, which formed the bulk of the procession, seemed able to rattle off details of the plan in his sleep: 6,000km of track and 30,000 workers to be cut over five years. "I have been working for the railways for 23 years," he said. "I work irregular hours, night shifts, and for that I take home 7,500 francs [pounds 1,070] a month. And now Juppe tells me the country can't even afford that."

The government argues it needs to cut the budget to make the economy fit for European monetary union in 1999. But this reasoning fell on deaf ears. "The situation of the French economy is not as bad as they say," says Mr Andre, as he cites yet more statistics. "In any case, we're against Maastricht, because it exploits the workers. The workers of Europe must unite against Maastricht," he said vaguely, looking unsure of his facts for the first time.

PM talks tough, page 11

Fight for the future, page 19