FRENCH UNIONS STRIKE OVER JOB CUTS, DISRUPTING CARRIERS, POSTAL SERVICE

FRENCH UNIONS STRIKE OVER JOB CUTS, DISRUPTING CARRIERS, POSTAL SERVICE

French unions Tuesday put on their biggest show of force since conservatives won power in March, disrupting mail service and public transportation with a wave of strikes.

Backed nationwide by two major unions, and at least partially by several other unions, the strikes were called to protest the massive job cuts taking place at state-owned companies, as well as the government's privatization

plans.The state-run railroad, SNCF, was the hardest-hit target. In most of France, only one of three trains was running as a 24-strike began early Tuesday. The network's flagship high-speed trains operated almost normally in the north, but service was sharply reduced elsewhere.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, ground personnel of state-run Air France blocked access to one of the two main terminals for several hours. Many passengers had to walk through parking lots to get to the terminal, but airport officials said flights operated on schedule.

In Paris, four of the 13 subway lines were virtually shut down at midday, and only one line was operating at more than 50 percent of normal. Commuter rail service was 50 percent to 66 percent of normal, and Paris bus service was 70 percent of normal, officials said.

Mail service was halted in many areas, but strikes by telephone and electric company workers had relatively little impact, according to initial reports. Thousands of postal and telephone workers joined a protest march in Paris.

It was the first widespread strike by public-sector workers since Edouard Balladur took over as prime minister following the conservatives' rout of the Socialists in parliamentary elections in March.

Mr. Balladur has retained a relatively high approval rating in opinion polls, even though his government has failed to curb the increase in unemployment - now 11.7 percent.

He has unveiled ambitious plans to privatize 21 state-owned firms, raising fears among workers that the new ownership would increase the pace of job cutbacks. The state railroad, Air France and other targets of Tuesday's strikes already are trimming their work forces, and a report submitted to Parliament last week forecast 110,000 job losses in the defense industry next year.