Home > Record numbers join anti-Sarkozy protests

Record numbers join anti-Sarkozy protests

by Open-Publishing - Friday 20 March 2009

Edito Trade unions Demos-Actions Strikes France

Record numbers took to the streets of France yesterday in the biggest demonstrations since Nicolas Sarkozy’s election, to protest about his handling of the economic crisis.

Unions estimated that more than three million people took part in demonstrations across the country, in the second general strike over the economic crisis in two months. Police put figures at about 1.2 million. With one in three people supporting the protest, it had the highest public backing for a strike in a decade.

Sarkozy maintains he is the only man who can face down street protests and plough on with his project to reform France, but he is facing an array of different demands and growing anger. Teachers and doctors protested against his long-standing reform plan, saying public-sector job cuts would kill schools and hospitals. University staff are continuing their seven-week strike against higher education reform with sit-ins and occupations.

Private-sector employees, including supermarket cashiers, bank clerks and car workers, took to the street over poor pay, factory closures and the return of a traditional French scourge: unemployment, now rising at its fastest rate in 10 years.

On the Paris march, Roland Bonnot, a primary teacher from Dijon, said that in the suburb where he taught, parents were under constant fear of unemployment after the announcement that a mustard factory was closing. "Children are now picking up on the anxiety and not performing well at school," he said.

The general strike disrupted transport, schools, airports, government offices and even state theatres. Unions demanded job protection, an increase in the minimum wage and a U-turn on Sarkozy’s early move to cut taxes for the mega-rich. But the government has insisted there will be no concessions.

The government is concerned about the increasingly radical nature of protesters, with Sony factory workers holding a chief executive hostage over redundancies last week. Some French protesters are looking to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where a six-week general strike and one death eventually forced the government to back down and raise wages.

With its large public sector, generous welfare system and rigid banking system, France has not yet suffered as acutely as Britain or Spain from the financial crisis. But a wave of mass redundancies sparked the protests.

Sarkozy has focused on a €27bn stimulus plan through public and private investment instead of boosting consumers’ pockets with major tax-cuts or higher welfare spending. He argues that without investment leading to job creation, France, with an already weak private sector and stuttering economy, will not be able to recover as fast other countries.

After the last general strike in January, Sarkozy moved to defuse tension by introducing certain tax cuts and welfare payments for the poorest families. Unions said it was not enough, but the president’s advisers this week said there would be no more immediate measures.

"Sarkozy says there’s no money for the public sector, that state coffers are dry, then he miraculously finds money to bail out the car industry," said Olivier Langillier, a nurse at the Paris march