PARIS (Reuters) - French transport workers went on strike and unions held rallies on Tuesday against measures to curb the public deficit, but the much lower turnout than in last year’s pension reform protests may reassure the government as elections loom.
Five unions, including the CFDT and the prominent CGT syndicate, the two biggest groups, organised about 200 street rallies and strikes across France against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s budget-cutting measures.
Sarkozy is battling to preserve France’s cherished AAA credit rating, as sputtering growth threatens deficit goals, while trying not to irk voters already fed up with economic gloom seven months before a presidential election.
The bulk of the budget-trimming measures -- which the government stresses do not constitute an austerity plan -- consist of scrapping tax exemptions on everything from private health insurance to real estate capital gains. The plan also includes a new tax on the wealthy.
Unions have urged Sarkozy to focus on growth and called for Tuesday’s action, held during France’s traditional protest month of October.
“We’re fed up with austerity,” said CGT leader Bernard Thibault, who marched with union members in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.
“They always ask more of workers. They touch our purchasing power ... while the most fortunate again find the upper hand in the situation,” he said. “This isn’t a crisis for everyone.”
Several thousand people marched in Marseille, while in the central city of Lyon, protestors waving red flags protested at the rising cost of living.
Outside the Paris stock exchange, CFDT members stacked up cardboard boxes painted gold and labelled “100 million euros” as Pink Floyd’s song “Money” blared from a loudspeaker.
“Today, it’s a message,” Francois Chereque, the CFDT head, told reporters, as nearly 100 union members sat in the plaza. “We, the unions, are present and we are ready to act.”
While the Paris metro was more crowded than usual, trains at major stations like Paris’ Gare de Lyon were generally running on time and, on average, three out of four high-speed TGV trains were operating.
State railway operator SNCF said 21 percent of its workers participated in the strike.
Student protestors also blocked access to a few high schools in Paris, where students have their own union.
Last year, more than a million demonstrators -- union workers, supporters and students -- turned out for a two-week strike marked by rowdy street protests and widespread work stoppages that badly disrupted transport, blocked oil refineries and let garbage pile up in some cities.
Unions have called Sarkozy’s budget plans “unfair” but the lack of any sizable action on Tuesday indicates that opposition to the centre-right government’s cuts are limited.
“These pseudo-strikes don’t serve the ‘anti-austerity’ cause at all,” wrote one reader on the website of the daily Le Parisien, noting that with unemployment high in France, sympathy for unionised workers was muted.
Another wrote, “I‘m ashamed of this country of moaners and these people who still think it’s 1789,” referring to the French Revolution.
Sarkozy’s programme of 12 billion euros of savings for this year and next have sought to avoid unpopular belt-tightening measures ahead of a 2012 election which the main opposition Socialists are in a strong position to win.
France’s trade unions are still smarting from their defeat against the government in late 2010, when they failed to force Sarkozy to abandon his plan to raise the retirement age by two years to 62 years, leaving them looking weakened.
Some unions, like the more radical Force Ouvriere, decided to sit out Tuesday’s protests.
“Given what happened last year on pensions, we decided that a day like today will not really change things, so we abstained from it,” Force Ouvriere head Jean-Claude Mailly told i-Tele TV.
A CGT union spokesman said a strike in the power sector had not cut electricity output capacity, because of the low number of workers from state utility EDF (EDF.PA) downing tools.
Additional reporting by Marina de Petris in Marseille and Muriel Boselli in Paris; Editing by Catherine Bremer