Massive demos put heat on French government

11th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 11 (AFP) - The French government was under mounting pressure on Friday to deliver concessions after more than half a million protestors took to the streets to defend the 35-hour work week and demand better pay.

PARIS, March 11 (AFP) - The French government was under mounting pressure on Friday to deliver concessions after more than half a million protestors took to the streets to defend the 35-hour work week and demand better pay.

Admitting Thursday's nationwide protests had been a "success", government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said they showed that "there are in fact many concerns, a lot of questions and worries bothering many of our countrymen."

Seeking to respond to the increasing social discontent, the centre-right government indicated that it would move to kick-start pay negotiations in the private and public sector.

Police said at least 570,000 people joined Thursday's protests across France, which were accompanied by transport strikes that paralysed the Paris metro system and area airports. Organisers said more than a million took part.

The strong turnout dominated Friday's newspapers, with the left-leaning Liberation running the front-page headline "Olympic success", referring to the simultaneous visit by IOC inspectors assessing Paris's bid for the 2012 Games.

The protests were part of a campaign by labour unions and the Socialist opposition to force President Jacques Chirac to increase wages, reverse reforms of the 35-hour work week and cease efforts to curb the welfare state.

"Higher salaries, shorter working hours, against deregulation and unemployment," read the giant banner at the head of the Paris protest, which police said drew some 35,000 participants - 150,000, according to organisers.

France's jobless rate jumped above the symbolic 10 percent mark in January - its highest level in five years - and workers have become even more disillusioned following news of record profits in the country's top publicly-quoted companies.

"The ingredients for a deep and undoubtedly prolonged social crisis are in place unless a jump-start comes, dare we say, from high up," Liberation said in a commentary. "The confidence of the French people is at a low point."

The paper urged Chirac to intervene, saying he was the one "who must take an initiative capable of helping the country recover".

The government of French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has vowed not to back down on its plans for gradual economic reform, with Raffarin saying on Friday: "Courage means reform."

"Courage is in both listening to others and determination. I will show in the coming days, in a concrete way, that I know how to do both," the prime minister added.

Cope, who is also junior budget minister, told French news channel LCI that the government was committed to "responding point by point" to workers' demands, adding: "We've initiated a lot of things, started many projects".

Socialist leader Francois Hollande on Friday called on Raffarin to take "a quick, clear decision on the central issue of purchasing power".

Labour Minister Jean-Louis Borloo has called on private sector managements to reopen salary negotiations, while Civil Service Minister Renaud Dutreil said he would ask union leaders to meet before month's end for talks "without taboos".

Le Monde reported in its Saturday edition that Dutreil was prepared to offer a one percent raise to civil servants, but when contacted by AFP, the minister's office refused to comment on the report.

Unions charge that public sector workers have lost five percent of their buying power since January 2000, taking into account current inflation rates.

Above all, the government does not want the growing dissatisfaction of workers to snowball into a protest "no" vote against a referendum to approve the European Union constitution, scheduled for May 29.

"With a view to avoiding a dangerous amalgamation between the social malaise and the referendum campaign that has just begun, the government has given itself a timetable that hardly leaves any breathing room," the financial daily La Tribune said in a commentary.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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