30 Jan 2009

French strike over economic crisis

6:03 am on 30 January 2009

Hundreds of thousands of French workers staged a nationwide strike on Thursday to try to force President Nicolas Sarkozy and business leaders to do more to protect jobs and wages during the economic crisis.

Public transport was snarled in many cities, scores of flights were cancelled, and schools, banks, hospitals, the post office, law courts and state broadcasters were also expected to be affected by the protest.

The strike aims to highlight fears of growing unemployment, discontent over Mr Sarkozy's reluctance to help consumers and resentment towards bankers blamed for the economic slump.

In a rare show of unity, France's eight national unions backed calls to strike and drew up a joint list of demands for the government and companies, which they accuse of trying to use the crisis as a pretext to lay off workers and cut costs.

It is the first such protest linked to the economic crisis to hit a major industrialised nation and was backed by the majority of French voters, according to opinion polls. However, it was not expected to snowball or threaten government stability.

Although France does not face the sort of economic woes that are battering neighbours such as Spain and Britain, its jobless rate is climbing steadily, reaching 2.07 million in November, up 8.5% on the year.

With analysts predicting that the economy will contract by up to 2% in 2009, Mr Sarkozy drew up a 26 billion euro stimulus package at the end of last year that looked to encourage investment and protect major industries.

Union leaders say he should follow Britain's example and offer help for consumers. Large rallies are planned for numerous cities on Thursday and unions say the government will have to listen.

Mr Sarkozy confounded the unions during his first 18 months in office, pushing through reforms at a dizzying pace and refusing to bow to street protests over unpopular measures, but he has recently seemed more wary of social conflict.

In December, fearful that Greek youth riots would spread to France, he shelved a disputed school reform plan after teenage pupils staged street protests against it.

He has been careful not to antagonise unions over Thursday's strike and ministers say Mr Sarkozy is listening to their message.