France strikes in anger at failing economy

30th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

The strikers are demanding protection from layoffs, a boost to low wages and an end to public sector cutbacks.

Paris -- More than a million French workers walked off the job Thursday on a national day of strikes and protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis.

Billed as a "Black Thursday," the day of action stopped short of paralyzing the Paris transport network but strike turnout was high, with 23 percent of France's five million public sector workers putting down their tools.

Many in France fear they will lose their jobs in a crisis they blame on bankers and the failures of the market. The strikers are demanding protection from layoffs, a boost to low wages and an end to public sector cutbacks.

Teacher strikes shut down hundreds of schools, forcing parents to stay home to mind their children, while thousands more public and private sector workers took a day off to avoid the disruption.

Public support for the protests remains high. Trade unions were predicting huge crowds to join around 200 street marches planned for late Thursday across the country.

Officials said just over a third of teachers, a quarter of postal, telecoms and state electricity workers and 15 percent of air traffic controllers were on strike.

Unions said 40 percent of the national SNCF network's staff walked out.

Public radio stations were broadcasting music on a loop and the Chateau de Versailles, one of France's biggest tourist attractions, was closed.

A third of flights out of Paris' second airport Orly were cancelled, but remaining services from there and the larger Charles de Gaulle were delayed only by around half-and-hour, as much by thick fog as by the strike.

Inside the city, around three-quarters of Metro trains were running on the underground network, along with 85 percent of buses and all trams and airport shuttle services, management said.

Suited workers biked or skated to work to avoid the disruption. Officials reported a 150-percent surge in use of the city's hugely popular cycle rental network, Velib.

There was more trouble on the RER commuter rail network bringing workers into the city, with one branch line fully closed and as few as one in five trains running on others.

But arriving in Paris, many commuters were unperturbed by the disruption and many expressed support for the strikers, even as they headed to work.

"I'm tired and frozen after waiting half-an-hour on the platform, but I'm prepared to accept that, when it's a movement to defend our spending power and jobs," said 34-year-old secretary Sandrine Dermont. "I'll join the street protests during my lunch break," she added, as she pulled in to Saint Lazare station in Paris.

"I can't march because it would be held against me at work," said Patrick Laine, a 42-year-old administrator at an insurance firm. "But I'm happy that others are protesting in my place against a government that's strangling the poor and the middle classes."

In France's second largest city, Marseille, the Metro was closed. But in Lille, eight out of 10 buses were working and in Bordeaux and Lyon trams and subways were operating at about half their capacity.

National and regional train services were disrupted, though not as badly as had been expected. Rail firm SNCF predicted that 60 percent of high-speed TGV services would run, and 40 percent of regional trains.

Eurostar services to London and the Thalys to Belgium and the Netherlands and the Alleo to Germany were not expected to suffer delays, but the Lyria line to Switzerland was to run at between a third and a half capacity.

Sarkozy came to power in May 2007 promising to raise living standards and to kickstart growth. Yet, France only narrowly averted recession last year and the economy will probably contract in 2009 for the first time since 1993.

Emma Charlton/AFP/Expatica

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