Transportation strikes are an annoying fact of life in France, yet most people sympathize with the strikers when the subways shut down or truckers block the highways. After all, truck drivers and railway workers don't make much money, and employers seldom penalize workers for not showing up during transit strikes, so it's easy to wish the strikers well.

But the renowned Gallic sang-froid was severely tested last week by a strike by pilots at Air France, the state-owned airline, just days before the nation plays host to the World Cup, the World Series of soc-cer.The pilots, whose average annual salary of $123,000 makes them better paid than their counterparts at other major European carriers like Lufthansa and British Airways, were protesting a management plan to trim their pay by an average of $26,000 over the next three to five years, and replace the income with stock options.

With Air France, the official carrier for the World Cup, able to fly only a fraction of its schedule, the French public was outraged, for the first time in years, by what many saw as greedy pilots. A poll published by Paris-Match last week showed that only 47 percent of those polled supported holding a transportation strike during the World Cup. In December 1995, 62 percent of those surveyed sympathized with striking rail and transport workers; in November 1996, 74 percent supported striking truck drivers.

"I feel sad and almost ashamed," said Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement as negotiators were trying to reach a settlement before the games kick off Wednesday.

Chevenement and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin were elected a year ago by voters who never forgave Jospin's conservative predecessor, Alain Juppe, for trying to cut the pension benefits of the rail and transit workers in 1995 as part of an unpopular government austerity plan to prepare for the coming single European currency. When strikers shut down rail and mass transit networks, the country was paralyzed, but with Christmas approaching, many workers were just as happy to back the strikers and stay home.

This time things were different. The irony of a Socialist-led government criticizing strikers is only one of many contradictions in the latest episode in France's struggle to pull its cosseted welfare-state economy into the 21st century.

Chevenement even had to deny rumors that he was considering calling in the French equivalent of the National Guard to replace the strikers the way that President Ronald Reagan replaced striking American air traffic controllers in the early 1980s.

The French feel as strongly about soccer as they do about social justice. Taxpayers put up $450 million for a new stadium in Paris for the World Cup, and Air France planes have been splashed with bright color pictures of players from 32 countries. Buses in Paris display welcome signs in many languages, and special trains have been arranged to transport fans and players among the 10 cities in which the 64 games will be played.

France's national honor is at stake, the authorities keep reminding people. No American-style private-sector improvisation, a la Atlanta during the last Olympics and Denver during the 1994 World Cup, would do for the glory of France.

With a sense that the eyes of the world were on them, many French felt indignation when transportation unions started in with business as usual - by trying to hold up employers for ransom just when their work was most needed.

The pilots were not the only ones on the picket lines, though truck drivers, who shut down the country's roads in 1997 and the year before to get higher wages, promised they wouldn't think of in-con-ven-i-encing their fellow citizens during the World Cup, which ends July 12.

A union representing 30 percent of the engineers for the state railway network called a strike to begin on the eve of the Cup opening.