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Chirac gives PM 'full support' on strikes

As airline staff and teachers prepared to join the strikes that have paralysed France for almost two weeks, President Chirac yesterday put the full weight of his office behind Alain Juppe, expressing "his full support for the position set out by the Prime Minister".

With a true presidential touch, he also told the regular cabinet meeting that special provision should be made during the strikes for homeless people, deprived of the shelter of warm underground stations.

The majority of trade unions, including two of the biggest, the Force Ouvriere (FO) and the CGT, vowed to continue the strikes. Basking in the success of the nationwide protests on Tuesday, and the still-growing strike movement, they called today for further demonstrations to keep up the pressure on the government. The five rail unions have also voted to maintain their 12-day-old strike.

With the battlelines thus drawn, and no sign of either side retreating, the balance of forces - which until Tuesday appeared to favour the protesters - seemed to be shifting to the government. Even the union leader who has made much of the running, Marc Blondel of the FO, seemed to be looking for a way out when he called yesterday not only for the withdrawal of the "Juppe plan" but for "the opening without delay of negotiations at prime-ministerial level".

On a television discussion programme on Tuesday night, Mr Blondel and Louis Viannet of the CGT produced tired cliches which contrasted poorly with an energetic performance from the industry minister, Franck Borotra. Their call yesterday for a second day of demonstrations within a week not only looks unimaginative, but holds the serious risk that fewer people will turn out.

Several other factors are moving in the government's favour. Mr Chirac's firm support of Mr Juppe makes a climb down by the Prime Minister less likely. The alternative transport organised for Paris commuters has started to reduce rush-hour jams, and the FO, which yesterday launched a subscription campaign to help strikers, may be running short of money. The cold weather also helps - by discouraging marchers.

No less crucial is the fact that there is still a key dissenter in the ranks of the unions. Nicole Notat, head of the biggest union, the CFDT, which has links with the Socialist Party, is adamant that Mr Juppe's plans for welfare reform do have some good points. But Ms Notat's strength among her own union activists is questionable; she was booed and forcibly removed from the 24 November demonstration by some of her own militants. A wider public, however, sees her as a forthright woman who talks sense and does not allow herself to be pushed around. Yesterday, in words which may turn out to be prophetic, she told a radio interviewer: "I don't know whether the current protests are going to become quite as big as people say."

The protesters, for their part, have on their side the continuing sympathy of much public opinion, the general dissatisfaction with Mr Chirac and Mr Juppe in particular, and the strength of persisting grievances in individual sectors - like the railways. But if layoffs increase, and as deliveries of fuel, parts and raw materials start to seize up, sympathies could change very quickly.