France: General strike shakes government

March 21, 2009

On March 19, record numbers of people took to the streets as part of a general strike against President Nicolas Sarkozy's anti-worker economic policies, a British Guardian article said the following day.

The demonstrations, involving more than 3 million people, followed a general strike called by the union movement on January 29, which involved 2.4 million workers.

The Guardian said: "Teachers and doctors protested against [Sarkozy's] 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 February 5, Sarkozy had appeared on national television in an attempt to defend his government's response to the economic crisis, Revitalising labour said.

His government has given €48 billion in aid to business, particularly French banks, while taking no action to protect either jobs or the purchasing power of the low paid.

Sarkozy not only defended the government's current strategy, but pledged to provide a further €8 billion in aid to business by reducing business taxes in 2010. At the same time, Sarkozy ruled out either a reduction in sales tax or an increase in the minimum wage.

Sarkozy also indicated that he remains committed to a 10% reduction in the size of the public sector.

In an effort to quell anger, Sarkozy offered an increase in social spending of €2.65 billion at a February 18 meeting with unions. However, the plan would do nothing to substantially imrpove the declining purchasing power of lower income families or protect jobs.

A joint statement issued by the eight union confederations that called the March 19 strike said that they considered the proposed measures too fragmentary to change the course of economic policy.

"Moreover", the statement said, "the President refuses to increase the minimum wage, to change his policy on reducing employment in the public sector or to reverse the tax on overtime."

The demands of the March 19 general strike included:

• maintain employment in public and private sectors;
• fight social and economic deregulation;
• maintain the purchasing power of wage earners, the unemployed and pensioners, and reduce inequality; and
• maintain social protection and quality public services.

The Guardian said: "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."

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