PARIS - Train delays, closed schools and jammed roads greet France as more than a million angry workers mount nationwide strikes and protests to demand more protection from the global financial meltdown. But, Paris government shuns growing fears, defending its recovery plan
Billed as a "Black Thursday," the day of action failed to halt the Paris transport network, but support for the strike was significant, with 23 percent of France's five million public sector workers downing tools.
Call for rethinking
Many in France fear for their jobs in a crisis they blame on bankers and free market failures. They are demanding protection from layoffs, a boost to low wages and an end to public sector cutbacks. Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon called for Sarkozy to rethink a package of tax cuts he said would help only the rich, and instead to focus on boosting the spending power of the worst off. "There's been a number of warning signs from public opinion, and it's because he wasn't paying attention to these signals that today we have a massive strike," Agence France-Presse quoted Hamon as saying.
Sarkozy's government, however, showed no sign of bending.
"We have a policy, a policy of reform, a recovery plan. The strike is not a solution to the crisis," Budget Minister Eric Woerth told RMC radio, defending the president's controversial plan to trim public sector jobs.
"Yes, there are too many government employees. Yes, yes, one departure in two will not be replaced," he insisted. One in three schoolteachers and one in four staffers at the post office and the electricity company EDF walked off the job, and participation was high in many parts of the public transport network with erratic train, tram and bus services. The strike cut 11,000 megawatts in power capacity, unions said, but EDF said supplies to customers would not be disrupted.
Although France does not face the sort of economic woes that are battering neighbors such as Spain and Britain, its jobless rate is climbing steadily, hitting 2.07 million in November, up 8.5 percent on the year. The European Commission predicts a French jobless rate of 9.8 percent in 2009 and 10.6 percent in 2010, which would wipe out inroads made in the past few years.
With analysts predicting that the economy will contract by up to 2 percent in 2009, Sarkozy drew up a 26 billion euro ($34 billion) stimulus package at the end of last year that looked to encourage investment and protect major industries. Union leaders say he should follow Britain's example and offer help for consumers.
"For several months now, especially since the crisis exploded, we have been asking the government for various measures, notably help to boost consumer spending," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union. "Up until now we have not had any response and when you don't get dialogue you get a show of force," he told Reuters.