PARIS, Mar 19 – French workers mount a new show of force against President Nicolas Sarkozy\’s government Thursday, staging nationwide strikes and protests to demand more state protection from the economic crisis.
Unions and left-wing parties hope to draw more than a million people into the streets in protest at the government\’s handling of the economic crisis, with a poll suggesting three-quarters of the public back the strike movement.
Thursday\’s one-day strike comes against a backdrop of mounting anger over job losses and factory closures, as France and its eurozone neighbours feel the bite of a recession that appears set to last well into 2010.
Some 200 demonstrations are planned in towns and cities across France, with strikes set to disrupt air traffic, commuter trains and high-speed intercity rail services, as well as shut schools and government offices.
Car industry, oil, banking, pharmaceutical and retail workers are called on to down tools and march alongside the public sector employees who usually make up the bulk of French street protestors.
To cushion the economic blow for the most vulnerable, unions are demanding that Sarkozy boost the minimum wage, increase taxes on the rich and scrap plans to cut public sector jobs.
Sarkozy agreed last month to a package of social benefits worth 2.6 billion euros after a first day of mass protests brought a million people onto the streets on January 29.
The president insisted Wednesday he "understands the concerns of the French people," but his government has ruled out new social spending, saying its top priority remains to protect jobs and industry.
Sarkozy also rejected mounting calls by unions and the opposition for him to suspend a 50-percent cap on income tax, arguing that it would drive wealthy taxpayers abroad.
The head of France\’s MEDEF employers\’ federation, Laurence Parisot, lashed out at union leaders this week, accusing them of populism and of "creating false expectations."
But the government has sought to deflect public anger by asking the MEDEF to agree a cap on executive pay at firms that announce layoffs.
Government ministers have also railed against the announcement of job cuts at oil giant Total, which has posted an all-time record profit, or at the French operations of German tyre manufacturer Continental.
French unemployment has surged past eight percent with more than two million people out of work and another 350,000 set to lose their jobs this year, as the slowdown destroys thousands of jobs in heavy industry and the car sector.
Car industry supplier Rencast, an aluminium founder that employs 850 people in southeastern France, was officially declared bankrupt Wednesday, while the tyre manufacturer Goodyear announced plans to slash up to 1,000 jobs.
Authorities fear that a six-week strike on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, which ended with a deal to hike wages, could embolden workers on the mainland to take a more radical stance.
Polls suggest the crisis is already benefiting the extreme-left leader Olivier Besancenot, whose newly-launched Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) is named in recent surveys as the most credible alternative to Sarkozy\’s government.
France\’s main opposition Socialist Party accused Sarkozy on Wednesday of driving the country into a "dead-end," warning of a mounting risk that protests could turn violent.
"We will see workers\’ demands getting tougher, because we are heading deeper and deeper towards a dead-end," party spokesman Benoit Hamon said on Wednesday.