Angry French set for nationwide strikes

18th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Nearly three-quarters of the French believe the strike called by all of France's main trade unions is justified, according to a poll.

Paris -- France braces for nationwide strikes on Thursday that unions say will touch off huge protests for the second time in two months against President Nicolas Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis.

Nearly three-quarters of the French believe the strike called by all of France's main trade unions is justified, according to a poll released Tuesday.

More than a million people took to the streets on January 29, the biggest protests held since Sarkozy took office in May 2007 on a promise to reform France and raise living standards.

"The turnout will be strong on Thursday," said Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union. "It will be as strong as on January 29."

French workers are feeling acute pain from the economic downturn, Chereque told a French television interview at the weekend. "Everyone knows a neighbour or a friend who is affected."

Unemployment has surged past eight percent and will climb further during the year as France and its eurozone neighbours sink into a recession that appears likely to last well into 2010.

Economy Minister Christine Lagarde warned this month that 2009 would "be difficult both economically and socially" for France, with job losses predicted to number 350,000 this year and the economy set to shrink by 1.0 to 1.5 percent.

Unions are calling on Sarkozy to scrap plans to cut public sector jobs, reverse tax cuts handed out in 2007 and boost social protection as the economy nosedives, shedding thousands of jobs in heavy industry among other sectors.

The strike on Thursday is expected to cause disruption to public transport and train services and shut down some schools and government offices. Private sector workers are also set to take part.

After holding a high-profile "social summit" with labour leaders last month, Sarkozy offered a string of new benefits to help families cushion the blow from the crisis.

But the unions dismissed the package as insufficient and vowed to step up protests.

"The head of state must agree to discuss our proposals," Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT, France's biggest union, told Le Monde daily.

"He cannot just say that this crisis is unprecedented, that reforms have been decided and that there is no need to change course. This is what prompts us to continue to mobilise," said Thibault.

The poll published in the financial daily Les Echos showed 74 percent of the French considered the one-day strike as justified and 62 percent said they disapproved of the government's economic policies.

The poll, of 1,003 people, was carried out between March 13 and 14.

The one-day strike comes against the backdrop of several incidents of worker revolt in France in recent weeks over job losses and factory closures.

On Friday, workers at Sony France's videotape factory in the southwestern town of Pontonx-sur-l'Adour took their managing director hostage overnight in a bid to win a bigger redundancy package.

The biggest single closure announced so far is that of German tyre giant Continental's plant in Clairoix, north of Paris, where 1,210 workers learned unexpectedly last Wednesday that they are to lose their jobs.

Continental's decision angered Sarkozy's government, which has promised at least six billion euros in loans to protect France's auto sector.

Continental's workers have threatened to launch a legal challenge to the closure, which government spokesman Luc Chatel called a "betrayal" of a workforce that had already agreed to work longer hours.

French oil giant Total is also the target of public anger after it announced 555 job cuts less than one month after it posted its biggest annual profit in French corporate history.

French politicians have also expressed concern that a six-week strike that paralysed the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe could embolden workers on the mainland to take a tougher stance.

The strike ended earlier this month after a deal was struck for pay increases and measure to bring down the prices of basic goods on the French island.

Carole Landry/AFP/Expatica

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