Tuesday 27 January 2009
by: Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian UK
Paris - Nicolas Sarkozy this week faces the first mass-protests over his handling of the financial crisis as unions prepare to paralyse France in a general strike uniting train-drivers, air traffic controllers, journalists, bank staff and even ski-lift operators.
"Black Thursday" is the first general strike since the French president's election in 2007. All the leading unions have joined forces to protest that the government's stimulus plans should focus less on companies and more on workers' job-protection and purchasing power.
The protests reflect a mood of social unrest that has been building for months. Unemployment had dropped in the first half of last year but it is now spiralling, particularly among the young, and is forecast to reach 10% in 2010. The recession is predicted to be worse than thought while flagging exports and consumer sales have hammered the manufacturing sector.
The strike will unite private and public sector workers from schools, hospitals national TV and radio to postal services, bank clerks and supermarket employees. Even helicopter pilots and staff from the company that operates the French stock exchange are taking part. High school pupils, university lecturers, lawyers and magistrates will also protest a raft of Sarkozy's reforms and planned job cuts. Despite the predicted chaos, one poll found that 70% of French people either support or sympathise with the strikes.
"It's very rare for our bank workers to join in this kind of strike action," said Lionel Manchin, of the SNIACAM independent union at the bank Credit Agricole. "This is about protecting jobs and protecting our purchasing power. The bosses have been well protected with their salaries, it's now time to protect the workers."
The strikes follow months of tension after high school students delayed an education reform with sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations. Earlier this month a radical union led a strike that shut down Paris's second biggest railway station, leaving hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded. In the past two weeks, Sarkozy has criss-crossed the country giving more than 17 new year speeches, but protesters have been kept in check by riot police.
Describing the general mood of discontent, the MP Philippe Cochet, from Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, told Le Monde, "I feel a violence being born. In schools, for example, there's a very strong mobilisation."
Bernard Thibault, leader of the powerful, communist-leaning CGT union, said the protests could be bigger than those of 2006 which saw 3 million take to the streets against a new youth employment contract, the CPE. Sarkozy will today make a speech on measures for the unemployed in an attempt to defuse tension.
At the weekend, a coalition of psychiatrists, health workers, judges, teachers and researchers will meet to discuss their joint appeal in protest at a range of the president's reforms. Oliver Besancenot, leader of the Communist Revolutionary League, is then hoping to benefit from the mood by launching his anti-capitalist party.
The strike action kicked off yesterday with stoppages by university lecturers and researchers over higher education reform. High school pupils also hope Thursday's strike will boost their demonstrations against school reform. Zaki Marouane, 19, secretary general of the Lycee pupils' union, FIDL, said: "We're taking to the streets again and our banners will read: "We refuse to be the children of the financial crisis!"
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