By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 20, 2009
PARIS, March 19 -- More than a million French workers staged a general strike and marched in demonstrations across the country Thursday in a second round of protests against the government's response to the world economic crisis.
The protests, which drew substantially more people into the streets than a similar outpouring Jan. 29, were depicted by union leaders as part of a sustained campaign to pressure President Nicolas Sarkozy to do more to defend French people against the economic upheaval that has unfurled across the planet since the fall. In particular, they called on him to raise low-end wages and unemployment benefits and to make it harder for business leaders to fire employees when profits sink.
"I cannot believe the government will stay immobile in the face of a phenomenon of this size," Bernard Thibault of the General Labor Confederation said on the government's France 2 television.
More than 90,000 French workers joined the ranks of the unemployed in January, pushing the total to 2.2 million and leading economists to estimate the unemployment rate at 8 percent. In addition, an increasing number of factories have put workers on part-time schedules, drastically reducing their pay and increasing fears of more layoffs.
In reaction, Sarkozy's government last month announced $3.2 billion worth of aid, including extended unemployment benefits, tax breaks for the poor and a one-time payment of $650 to unemployed youths who were not on the job long enough to qualify for unemployment checks. But the bulk of his $33 billion in anti-crisis spending has gone to buttress the finances of threatened banks and stimulate the flow of credit to needy businesses.
Union leaders have denounced Sarkozy's aid to workers as half-measures that betray an inability to understand the feelings of insecurity and unfairness spreading through the working-class population. Prime Minister François Fillon, in a television appearance after the protests, acknowledged workers' concerns as legitimate but noted that the crisis was worldwide and said the French government would be irresponsible if it promised more spending now.
"Certainly not a new stimulus plan," he added.
Unions said 3 million people participated in the demonstrations; police put the number at 1.2 million. In Paris, where the largest protest took place, marchers seemed enraged by what they said was Sarkozy's political bias toward the rich. France's bankers and businessmen have been granted expensive government subsidies to avoid bankruptcy, they said, while workers have been asked to make do with less money in their pay envelopes.
"There is a feeling of injustice," said Jean-Jacques Abekassi, 49, an employee of the Paris Chamber of Commerce and union activist who marched down the Rue du Temple under a warm sun. "We need a general rise in salaries and a better distribution of wealth in this country."
Despite the rancor on their banners, most marchers seemed cheerful in the spring weather as they marched and shouted anti-capitalist slogans. They moved past the house where Gustave Flaubert, author of "Madame Bovary," lived in the 19th century; they walked by the Kunga Tibetan restaurant, from where three Tibetans peered out at a raucous phenomenon that their countrymen left behind under Chinese rule were unlikely to witness any time soon; and they spilled into the Place de la Bastille, where street protesters kicked off the French Revolution in 1789 by tearing open a royal prison tower.
Claudine Chettab, 54, who was just laid off after 28 years as a purchasing agent, came from the Paris suburbs to join the show of outrage. Her firm was laying off people, she said, "because the financiers stuffed their pockets and never invested anything in the company when times were good."
To drive home her complaint, Chettab carried a handwritten banner paraphrasing Marie Antoinette, the insouciant queen of Louis XVI who was told the Paris poor were rioting because they had no bread. "When we have no more bread, we will eat cake," it read.