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Strikes May Signal Trouble Ahead for French Socialists

JACQUES CALVET, president of Peugeot automobiles, says he has seen a 21st century in which Japanese automakers gobble up the weaker competition, and he says the time to prepare for it is now. But striking Peugeot autoworkers say they have lived long enough in the 19th century, where a paternalistic management reaped the benefits of production and acted without consulting workers. They want change.

The striking employees in Mulhouse and Sochaux, two Peugeot plants near the Swiss border, see their Swiss counterparts earning markedly higher salaries. This, coupled with the handsome profits Peugeot expects to chalk up this year, has fueled their demands for a 1,500-franc-a-month ($240) pay increase.

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The Peugeot strike, plus two others in the public sector, are flustering Prime Minister Michel Rocard. He had hoped to present his Socialist government's 1990 budget unperturbed.

Mr. Calvet, credited with pulling the ailing company back to profitability, says Peugeot could afford the pay hike - but at the expense of future competitiveness. He considers this price too high.

Claiming that Peugeot's renaissance is still too delicate to allow for negotiations on a pay hike, Calvet has refused until now to even discuss the issue with striking workers, fewer than 10 percent of Peugeot's 57,000 work force. But with the strike in its fifth week, and with more than 30,000 cars lost, Calvet said Monday he would receive union representatives - though the word ``negotiation'' was studiously avoided.

Last week Mr. Rocard asked Peugeot, which unlike Renault is a private company and need not heed government admonitions, to respect the norms of employee-management relations and to take up discussions. The irony of the request is that Rocard has troubles in his own backyard. Some prison guards have gone on strike, as have some tax collectors.

Prison guards have no guaranteed right to strike. Hundreds of them have been dismissed without any negotiations having been taken up. Rocard has also adopted a rigid line toward striking tax collectors even though the effects of the strike are forcing the government to borrow money.

In addition, there are growing rumblings of strikes spreading to such sectors as the nationally owned electricity service.

For Rocard, who is walking a tightrope between Socialist Party philosophy and demonstrating strong leadership, any widening of the malaise could be a major burden for the government.

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France's economy is still ``convalescing'' from recession in the early '80s, the government insists. Nevertheless, it has proposed a 1990 budget that includes 7,800 new public-sector jobs and a ``growth pact'' by which government workers would share in economic growth through a pay bonus.

Such signs of solidarity between the Socialists and workers could quickly vanish, however, if the government were forced to finance a round of pay hikes in the public sector.

Of the three strikes, it is Peugeot's upheaval that could have the greatest impact in France, both because it is now the country's largest private company, and because the conflict could become an indicator of just how well French industry and society are adapting to a new, more integrated international market.

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