Massive Strike Closes France

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Benoit Tessie / Reuters

Commuters wait for a train at Gare du Nord train station in Paris January 29, 2009.

France shut down today, as an estimated million or more people throughout the country demonstrated the impact of the recession and government policies to deal with the downturn. Scores of flights were canceled, countless schools, post offices, and even courts closed, and armies of commuters endured long slogs to work as public transport services suffered disruption of varying severity.

The mammoth demonstrations were designed to send a warning of discontentment to the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Workers in France are angry about what they see as insufficient government efforts to protect both public and private sector jobs. People are also upset that union and employee concerns over stagnating salaries and slumping purchasing power were ignored when the government drew up its $34 billion economic stimulus package. Many remain concerned over the lack of any real effort to impose tighter regulations on banks and finance groups in France and abroad, despite Sarkozy's rousing call last year to "moralize financial capitalism". (See pictures of France celebrating Bastille Day.)

"We understand this is an exceptionally severe crisis, but we don't understand why the government isn't using exceptional responses to it to protect the majority of French workers who are suffering from it," said Adèle, a Paris region school teacher who gave only her first name as she assembled with other protesters at the Bastille. "More than ever, it's time the government thought about the little people — and take action so as many of us as possible keep our jobs, remain productive, and can keep consuming and contribute economically."

Despite the severity of the downturn — and the size of today's protest — French leaders aren't beating a retreat. Heading into the strikes, Sarkozy sounded a conciliatory tone, assuring French citizens that he understood their problems, but also stressing that France can't "halt its reform movement."

Indications Thursday that work stoppages in some transport systems like the Paris Metro were less severe than expected additionally emboldened officials to repeat pledges they'd stay the reform course. "I don't think you can zap and change policies constantly," said Budget Minister Eric Woerth Thursday. "We must remain level-headed during this very, very stormy period."

Still, union leaders warn they may repeat the action if Sarkozy fails to respond to what they say was the biggest labor protest in 20 years. "I cannot imagine tomorrow we'll hear the same old 'I saw nothing, I heard nothing, and I have nothing to say,'" Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor warned Thursday. "It's just not possible."

Why do Thibault and fellow union leaders feel so sure? Because while a majority of French public opinion had backed the wide-ranging conservative reform drive that has been Sarkozy's focus since winning the Presidency in May, 2007, there are now signs that his support is crumbling as the recession sets in. Polls on the eve of the strike showed 69% of people supported or sympathized with Thursday's action.

Sarkozy may also be getting comeuppance for his mocking comment to fellow conservatives last July, when he quipped that public support of his reforms had dealt the unions a deathblow. "These days, when there's a strike, no one notices," he said.

But today's strike was noticed. Indeed, state sector employees were joined by an unusually high numbers of private sector workers. Many of the 376 staffers at Paris-based pan-European stock exchange Euronext, for example, struck to denounce job cuts announced despite the company's double-digit growth in 2008. "Before, the French were deeply shocked by the situation, but didn't want to add to it," Denis Muzet, director of the Médiascopie Institute which tracks public opinion, told Le Monde. "But now there's real anger. Banks have announced positive results for 2008 after the state extended over $26 billion in aid to them — even as some bankers resist government demands for something in return by trying to hang on to their bonuses. That feeds a feeling of profound injustice in public opinion that could give rise to a revolt."

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