French workers stage mass street protests over crisis
Paris -- A million civil servants went on strike Thursday and workers marched in France's second nationwide street protests this year to denounce President Nicolas Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis.
"The crisis is not the fault of the workers," said one banner at the biggest march in Paris, where police said 85,000 people fronted by union leaders left the central Republique Square headed for Bastille.
A million civil servants went on strike for the day, officials said, while a third of schoolteachers stopped work along with a quarter of workers at France Telecom and one in five postal workers.
Unions and left-wing parties were hoping to draw more than a million people into the streets for 200 rallies held across France to demand a boost to wages and greater economic protection.
The protests were the latest sign of mounting public anger as France and its European neighbours feel the bite of a recession set to last well into 2010.
"I have two kids, a mortgage, I moved house to be nearer my job and now it looks like I might lose it," said Maher Khedira, 45, an engineer with car parts supplier Faurecia, a Peugeot subsidiary that has announced major lay-offs.
"I’m really worried," he said as he marched in warm spring sunshine in Paris, while around him other protestors blew whistles and chanted anti-employer slogans, and music blasted from sound systems.
In the northern town of Clairoix, around 10,000 people protested over the closure of a German-owned Continental tyre plant with the loss of 1,120 jobs, the latest in a wave of factory shut-downs.
Huge crowds also marched in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, in southeastern Lyon and in Grenoble.
Nearly 80 percent of French people believe the one-day strike is justified, said an IFOP poll published this week.
Strike action caused the cancellation of one in three flights out of Paris’ second airport Orly. But 90 percent of flights were running out of the city’s main Charles de Gaulle airport, officials said.
The state rail operator SNCF cancelled 40 percent of high-speed intercity TGV services and half of other regional trains.
Commuters heading into Paris were spared major disruption due to a new law enforcing a minimum service during strikes, while metro and bus lines were running normally.
To cushion the economic blow as French unemployment soars past two million, unions are demanding that Sarkozy hike the minimum wage, increase taxes on the rich and scrap plans to cut public sector jobs.
"This is not just a day of protest," said Francois Chereque of the powerful CFDT union. "We have made hard proposals, and the government has to give us some serious answers.
Sarkozy agreed last month to a package of social benefits worth 2.6 billion euros after a first day of mass protests brought a million people onto the streets on January 29.
But his right-wing government has ruled out any new social spending.
It says its priority is to protect jobs and industry, and it has rejected mounting calls to suspend an unpopular cap on income tax attacked as a handout to the rich.
Seeking to deflect public anger, the government has called on the MEDEF employers’ federation to cap executive pay at firms that announce lay-offs.
But the MEDEF rejected the suggestion on Thursday.
Some 350,000 people are predicted to lose their jobs this year as unemployment surges past eight percent.
Authorities fear that a tough six-week strike on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, which ended with a deal to hike wages, could embolden workers on the mainland to take a more radical stance.
Polls suggest the crisis is already benefiting the extreme-left leader Olivier Besancenot, whose newly-launched Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) is named in recent surveys as the most credible alternative to Sarkozy’s government.