Thursday, March 19, 2009

French Workers Hold Nationwide Strike Against Economic Crisis

Thursday, March 19, 2009
18:04 Mecca time, 15:04 GMT

French workers hold national strike

Thousands have taken to the streets to protest the government's handling of the economic crisis

Thousands of French workers are holding a nationwide strike in an attempt to secure jobs and increase pay.

More than 200 rallies are planned across the country, with more than one million people expected to participate.

Thursday's action, the second in less than two months, is a blunt criticism of the president's handling of the economic crisis within France.

A similar day of action at the end of January saw an estimated 2.5 million people involved.

With the cost of living rising, strikers are calling for higher wages, better methods for protecting employment and higher taxes for high earners.

Public transport and schools, hospitals and the postal service have been affected by the strikes, which are supported by around 75 per cent of the population, according to opinion polls.

In Clairoix, a town in France's north, around 10,000 people have protested over the closure of a Continental tyre plant, which has meant a loss of 1,120 jobs.

Huge crowds of protesters also marched in Marseille, and a main rally in Paris is due to begin on Thursday afternoon.

'Sense of injustice'

Agnes Poirier, a French political commentator, told Al Jazeera people are "very disillusioned" with Sarkozy's government.

"Every single corporation in France has a motive, a reason to demonstrate today. The French in their majority are protesting against a string of what they considered as ill-advised and rushed reforms that president Sarkozy wants to implement," she said.

She added that despite the majority of the population supporting the demonstrations, Sarkozy is unlikely to back down.

"The government is very cautious because it knows that there is popular support for these demonstrations, and yet Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday that he wouldn't back off and he would actually press on with his reforms," she said.

"A very strong sense of injustice is building up," Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere Union, told the Reuters news agency.

"I think the government will find it hard to ignore us."

The unions' demands also include a halt to planned job cuts in the public sector.

The government has introduced a $34bn stimulus plan aimed at business investment, and after the January 29 strike Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, offered more money to help vulnerable households weather the crisis.

Ministers say there will be no more concessions, explaining that the previous measures have not yet taken effect and warning that the heavily-indebted nation cannot afford more handouts.


Underlining the tensions, workers at a tyre factory in northern France recently pelted managers with eggs after they were told it was closing and, last week, staff at a Sony plant locked up their bosses for a night to demand better redundancy cover.

With its large public sector and welfare system, France is better placed than many to ride out the economic storm, but is still being strongly affected, with some analysts predicting the economy will contract by two per cent this year and unemployment jump to almost 10 per cent.

The crisis has already forced Sarkozy to water down his domestic agenda and he is facing pressure to undo some of his original moves, including a "fiscal shield" that allowed the rich to pay no more than 50 per cent of their income on taxes.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

French workers mount strike challenge to Sarkozy

PARIS (AFP) - - French workers staged a second nationwide strike in as many months Thursday in a show of force against President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic policies.

Thursday's day of protest, disrupting air and rail transport, comes against a backdrop of mounting anger over job losses and factory closures, as France and its European neighbours feel the bite of a recession that appears set to last well into 2010.

Unions and left-wing parties hope to draw more than a million people into the streets to demand a boost to wages and greater protection from the crisis, with some 200 rallies planned across France.

Strike action caused the cancellation of one in three flights out of Paris' second airport of Orly, though 90 percent of flights were running out of Paris main Charles-de-Gaulle airport, civil aviation officials said.

Nationwide, 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.

But with up to half of primary teachers on strike, many parents stayed home from work to look after their children.

According to an IFOP poll published this week, 78 percent of French people believe the one-day strike is justified.

Car industry, oil, banking, pharmaceutical and retail workers are called on to down tools and march alongside the public sector workers who usually make up the bulk of French street protesters.

Marches kicked off early Thursday in the Mediterranean port of Marseille, in southeastern Lyon and Grenoble, while a main rally in Paris was to set off at 2:00 pm (1300 GMT).

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."

"We no longer understand the government's policies or its goals," he told RMC radio, while Bernard Thibault of the biggest union, the CGT, warned "the government is going to have to agree to new talks."

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 new social spending, saying its top priority is to protect jobs and industry, and 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 MEDEF head Laurence Parisot -- in the firing line after accusing union leaders of populism -- flatly rejected the suggestion on Thursday.

Some 350,000 people are set to lose their jobs this year as unemployment surges past eight percent, and ministers have railed against the announcement of job cuts at oil giant Total, after it posted an all-time record profit.

The latest casualties were car industry supplier Rencast, an aluminium founder that employs 850 people, declared bankrupt Wednesday, and the tyre manufacturer Goodyear which announced plans to slash up to 1,000 jobs.

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.

New nationwide strike hits France

Hundreds of thousands of French workers have begun protests across the country during a nationwide strike.

Schools are closed and public transport is being disrupted, with demonstrations organised in about 200 towns.

Unions are opposing President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic policies. Unemployment has reached two million and is expected to rise further.

Organisers predict the protest will be bigger than one in January, when more than a million people took part.

Union members marched towards Nation in Paris behind a banner that read: "United against the crisis, defend employment, spending power and public services."

Police said there were about 85,000 people at the rally, according to the AFP news agency.

"They have a profound sense of social injustice, and that, I think, is something that neither the government nor the employers have understood," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the large Force Ouvriere union.

Marches are also being held in Marseille, Lyon, Grenoble and many other towns and cities.

It is the second time in two months that major demonstrations have been held, following a similar display in January.

Beleaguered industries

The strikes began on Wednesday evening with staff on transport networks.

Increase minimum wage
Reverse 50% cap on income tax
Suspend public sector job cuts
Measures to protect employment Government stimulus plan
11bn euros to help businesses improve cashflows
11bn euros of direct state investment
4bn euros of investment by state-owned firms in modernisation
2.65bn euros of tax breaks, and increases in family welfare and short-term unemployment benefits

The national rail operator, SNCF, cancelled 40% of high-speed trains and half of regional services.

A third of flights out of Paris's Orly airport have been cancelled, while a tenth of France's electricity output has been shut down with workers on strike.

However, buses and the Metro rail system in Paris were running normally, thanks to a new law enforcing a minimum transport service during strikes.

But with many schools and public buildings shut for the day, the number of workers travelling into the capital was reduced.

Private-sector firms were also expecting a depleted workforce, with staff from the beleaguered car industry, oil and retail sectors taking part in the strike.

Rising unemployment

The unions say the 26bn euro ($35bn; £24.5bn) stimulus package for France's struggling economy, unveiled by President Nicolas Sarkozy in December, does not go far enough.

A further 2.4bn euros ($3.2bn; £2.3bn) of measures, including tax breaks and social benefits, presented by President Sarkozy after January's strike has failed to placate them.

They want him to increase the minimum wage and scrap his plans to cut public-sector jobs.

Recent polls show three-quarters of French people support the strikers.

Many commuters on Thursday said they backed the action, but hoped it would be short-lived.

"Fundamentally I agree, but too much is too much," one was quoted as saying. "There are strikes in the transport sector too often and we have to put up with them."

President Sarkozy said on Wednesday that he "understands the concerns of the French people" but has ruled out plans for further measures.

Unemployment is likely to shoot up to 10% in the next 12 months with a further 350,000 lay-offs expected by the end of this year.

Many people are angry that big companies like the oil giant Total is making staff redundant while simultaneously announcing record profits, the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby in Paris says.
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Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/03/19 14:50:04 GMT

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