French unions call second day of national action

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Unsatisfied with the French government’s response to the national strike action in January, unions are calling for a second national day of action.

PARIS – French unions on Monday called a second national day of action for 19 March, fresh from more than a million people taking to the streets to vent their anger at public sector reform amid a deepening recession.

Four days after President Nicolas Sarkozy took to prime-time television screens across France's main networks to defend his government's plans, eight union federations announced the move after a three-hour meeting in Paris.

Sarkozy said he would meet trade unions and employers' associations on 18 February to discuss France's response to the downturn, in a bid to appear ready to listen to his critics fresh from 29 January national strike action.

However, on Monday evening, the unions said in a joint declaration that they are looking for "concrete proposals" at the summit, urging their members meantime to "keep up the pressure through unity of action".

The government's response "remains far from that expected and demanded by the mobilisation on 29 January," they said.

The unions said the type of actions they will call for on 19 March will depend on the outcome of the meeting with Sarkozy.

Fifteen million people tuned in on 5 February to watch Sarkozy defend his strategy for tackling what he called "the crisis of the century," in a 90-minute interview given to answer mounting criticism of his stimulus plans.

Sarkozy's left-wing critics accuse him of shovelling billions into banks and industry with a 26-billion-euro (33-billion-dollar) state investment drive, while ignoring direct help for consumers.

Facing a threat of further strikes and unrest, Sarkozy insisted he stood by his strategy of investing in business, announcing plans to scrap EUR 8 billion in annual local business taxes in 2010.

The right-wing French leader ruled out demands for a lower sales tax and a hike in the minimum wage, but he agreed to open talks with unions on 18 February on ways to boost low incomes.

Sarkozy promised that an estimated EUR 1.4 billion in interest generated by state loans for fragile banks would be ploughed back into social spending.

He also said the government would consider cutting income tax for the poorest households, while pushing for a deal on profit-sharing in companies.

But these gestures aside, Sarkozy said he would not be budged on the main thrust of his reform programme, having been elected in 2007 on a promise to cut taxes and slim down France's large public sector.

The head of France's biggest union, the CGT, Bernard Thibault, was unimpressed after his broadcast, summing up Sarkozy's hard announcements so far as "EUR 8-billion to nil", for big business versus the workers.

[AFP / Expatica]

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