Thursday, January 29, 2009
Hundreds of thousands of workers have begun a nationwide strike in France. Eight labor unions have called the industrial action to protest against what they say are insufficient measures by the government to tackle the economic crisis. Unions say that with unemployment mounting, French workers should not have to foot the bill for a crisis that has led to expensive government bailouts for banks, carmakers and other sectors. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced a 26-billion-euro stimulus package while pledging to press ahead with unpopular reforms to trim the public sector workforce and liberalize the labor market.
The head of France's biggest union said a million workers had rallied to demand action to protect jobs and wages.
But despite the show of public support, the strike appeared to be falling short of the paralysis forecast by unions.
Regional trains and those in and around Paris were hit, and a third of flights from Orly airport were cancelled.
Forty per cent of regional services were running, train operator SNCF said, and 60% of high-speed TGV services. Three-quarters of metro trains were running in Paris.
Schools, banks, hospitals, post offices and courts were also hit as workers stayed at home. Officials said just over a third of teachers and a quarter of postal and power company workers were on strike.
Overall, some 23% of the country's public sector workers are thought to have joined the action, which was called by eight major French unions.
Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union, told AFP more than a million workers had taken part in the strike, making it impossible for French President Nicolas Sarkozy to ignore their concerns.
In Paris, police said some 65,000 protesters had joined a march from the Place de la Bastille towards the centre of the city.
Earlier, some 25,000 to 30,000 people rallied in the city of Lyon, according to organisers and police.
In Marseille, organisers and the authorities disagreed, with the former putting the number of demonstrators at 300,000 but the police estimating 20,000 had taken part.
The protests are against the worsening economic climate in France and at what people believe to be the government's poor handling of the crisis.
Opposition Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said people were out in the streets "to express what worries them: the fact that they work and yet cannot make ends meet, retired people who just can't make it [financially], the fear of redundancies, and a president of the Republic and a government that just don't want to change policy".
According to a 25 January poll by CSA-Opinion for Le Parisien, 69% of the French public backs the strike.
"I'm tired and frozen after waiting half-an-hour on the platform," commuter Sandrine Dermont told AFP as she arrived by train in Paris.
"But I'm prepared to accept that when it's a movement to defend our spending power and jobs. I'll join the street protests during my lunch break," she said.
Many people are furious that Mr Sarkozy said there was no money left to raise wages and consumer spending power, but nonetheless managed to find billions of euros to bail out floundering French banks, says the BBC's Emma-Jane Kirby in Paris.
The walk-out has affected transport, education and postal services throughout the country, our correspondent says, and is the biggest one-day strike since Mr Sarkozy took up office.
With unemployment looking likely to reach 10% next year, she says, the protesters hope he will drop his programme of cost-cutting reforms and focus instead on protecting workers' jobs and wages.
Mr Sarkozy cannot ignore this demonstration of anger, our correspondent adds. Street protests have repeatedly brought down French leaders and Mr Sarkozy does not want his government added to that list of casualties.
"We want to show how the people are dissatisfied with the situation at the moment," Thierry Dedieu of the CFDT general workers' union told the BBC.
People had the feeling they were paying for a crisis they were not responsible for, he added.
But earlier in the week, French Finance Minister Eric Woerth condemned the strike organisers, accusing them of scare-mongering during a time of economic uncertainty.
"There are other ways to make oneself heard than striking," he said.
"Blocking a country, preventing transport from working, bothering people when they are still extraordinarily worried and fearful of the future, is adding fear on top of fear, worry on top of worry."