Across France, Unions Protest Actions on Economy

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 30, 2009

PARIS, Jan. 29 -- More than a million French workers staged a general strike and marched in massive protests around the country Thursday to vent their anger over the global economic crisis and denounce President Nicolas Sarkozy's business-friendly approach to containing the damage.

The popular outcry, organized by France's eight main labor unions and endorsed by the Socialist and other left-wing parties, marked Western Europe's largest protest to date against the financial turmoil that began on Wall Street in September and has since infected markets and paralyzed economies worldwide.

Only scattered violence was reported, and many public services, such as Paris buses, limped along despite the strike. Recalling a long tradition of taking to the streets in times of trouble, however, the outpouring heightened concern among officials in Paris that Europe's economic contraction could lead to political unrest here similar to the wave of violent protests that shook Greece in December.

Sarkozy was recently reported to have said that the country appears to have sunk into an "eruptive" mood as the economic news grows gloomier by the day. In a statement Thursday evening, he called workers' concerns "legitimate" and said he would meet with union leaders in February to coordinate the government's anti-crisis measures with them.

Without specific goals, the work stoppage and demonstrations were called mainly as a way for unionized workers and public servants to shout out their frustration about spreading layoffs and shrinking buying power and to complain that Sarkozy's $33 billion recovery program appears designed mainly to keep banks afloat and encourage businesses to invest. François Chérèque, head of the Democratic French Labor Confederation, a grouping of moderate unions, called the protests "a cry of anger."

"This is to show our dissatisfaction," said Eric Dupont, 40, a striking train driver from the government's National Railway Co. who joined protesters marching through the streets of Paris on a cold, sunny day from the Bastille to the Opera. "We've had a bellyful -- reductions in the number of workers, salary cutbacks. We're always the ones who suffer the most."

France's leftist political parties, which have been torn by dissent in recent years and overshadowed by Sarkozy's irrepressible activism, seemed eager to capitalize on the increasingly sour atmosphere as economic growth skids to a halt and unemployment rises. Economic forecasters have predicted that France's growth in 2009 will be static at best, perhaps negative, and that unemployment, after a slight improvement in 2008, could reach 10 percent.

Leftist leaders, in particular those of the largest opposition group, the Socialist Party, accuse Sarkozy of favoring rich businessmen at the expense of workers in his reaction to the crisis. Rather than using public money to stave off bankruptcy in banks and promote investment, they have said, the best response would be allocations to stimulate consumption and government restrictions on layoffs by business owners.

"This country is too unjust," said Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, who hailed the marchers in Paris from the sidelines. Sarkozy "doesn't listen to anyone," she said. "He thinks he is right on everything."

Marie-George Buffet, head of the Communist Party, expressed hope that Thursday's protests would be the first of many.

About a quarter of public servants -- fewer than predicted -- stayed off the job, producing major inconveniences but not a complete shutdown. About 12 percent of flights were canceled at Paris's Charles de Gaulle International Airport, and subway service was spotty. Teachers failed to show in many classrooms, and the ranks of gas and electricity technicians were thinned, without affecting supplies. The Interior Ministry said the street protests attracted more than 1 million people, while union officials put the figure at more than 2 million.

Despite the political attacks by protesters and opposition leaders, Sarkozy ordered his ministers to refrain from criticism, lest they contribute to the confrontational mood. Instead, he and several of his lieutenants expressed understanding, saying French workers were indeed suffering in the crisis and had a right to express their discontent.

But Sarkozy himself famously angered workers and union leaders seven months ago with the remark, often quoted since, that "these days, when someone has a strike, nobody notices."

His comment, shortly before the crisis erupted, reflected the growing acceptance in France that a market economy and flourishing business environment were the best recipe for prosperity. This marked an erosion of labor unions' traditional political power and a fading of the idea that strong state controls were needed to guarantee a fair share for workers.

For many of the protesters Thursday, the economic crisis has proved that the changes were ill-founded and that the market economy needs more controls than Sarkozy is willing to impose on his friends in business.

"This is a message from the people of modest means to the president of the wealthy," read a handwritten sign held by a gray-haired woman watching the protesters go by. Another sign, carried by a youthful marcher, read: "Sarkozy, can you notice us now?"

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