Strike-Hit Paris Loses Its Charm For Tourists

PARIS -- The splendors of Paris are leaving a new impression on tourists struggling to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum through a crippling strike -- "My feet hurt."

Forlorn visitors, with maps flapping in the chill winter breeze, are braving stoppages to thread their way for hours around a city deprived of its normal lifelines of underground Metro trains and buses, and clogged with traffic.

When they get to the sights, they find many museums are shut or partly closed for lack of staff. The Louvre has cut its admission price because some galleries are closed. A major retrospective of the paintings of Paul Cezanne is closing early.

"We went out to the Palace of Versailles by tour bus, but when we got there, strikers were blocking the gates and we couldn't go in," grumbled Yuko, 28, a Japanese tourist.

The strikes against austerity plans by the center-right government are adding to gloom for the tourism sector after a strong start to 1995.

A strong franc, worries about a wave of bombings in France blamed on Algerian Moslem extremists and opposition to French nuclear tests in the South Pacific have all hurt reservations.

Tourists unable to put off visits during the strikes, now beginning their third week, are advised to bring their most comfortable hiking shoes.

"We've been walking seven hours a day," said Manuel Gonzalez, 24, a Spanish bank employee from Madrid, visiting Paris with his girlfriend Noria Alvarez, 22. "But we're on the side of the strikers."

"I brought my running shoes, that helps a lot," said Peg Stanley, an astronomer from Baltimore, Maryland, in a cafe at the Louvre during a break in a conference she was attending.

She said she got caught between riot police and a protest march in Paris. "There was tear gas around, my eyes were watering. The police showed me a way out but it's threatening to have masses of people bearing down on you," she said.

But there are also advantages for tourists -- theaters and restaurants that are normally solidly booked have seats, and the Mona Lisa can be seen without the usual shoving match.

And U.S. tourists who were told before they left that the Cezanne exhibition was booked out said they got straight in.

"Our flight to Paris was delayed because of strikes ... but apart from the walking it's fine," said Joan Donnelly, 48, of Dublin, Ireland. "But maybe the strikes will prevent us from getting home."

The number of visitors to the Eiffel Tower is running 40 percent below normal for early December, Louvre entries were down 46 percent last week and 24 percent fewer people visited Louis XIV's palace in Versailles this November than last.

Hotels in the Paris region report 46 percent occupancy, down from 70 percent in the same 1994 period, according to the Regional Observatory of Tourism. The number of foreign visitors in November was 10 percent below normal.

Businesses hoping for foreign Christmas shoppers have also been hit. The strong franc has long made cities like Rome, London or even New York cheaper for foreign visitors.