March 19, 2009 / 2:33 PM / 11 years ago

Q+A: What is at stake with the French protests

(Reuters) - French unions staged a nationwide day of action on Thursday to denounce the government’s economic policies and call for more measures to help consumers.

It is the second such nationwide protest this year, posing the biggest challenge to President Nicolas Sarkozy since he took office in May 2007.

Here are some of the issues.

WHO HAS ORGANISED THE PROTESTS AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?

All France’s eight union federations back the protest movement and have presented a long list of demands, including a hike in salaries for the least-well paid, making job protection the economic priority, a tax hike for high earners, a halt to planned public sector job cuts and more low-cost housing.

HAS FRANCE COME TO A STANDSTILL?

No. While there are disruptions in many sectors, including public transport, most people turned up to work, especially in the private sector. The success of the protest will depend mainly on how many people attend some 213 rallies planned for Thursday. Up to 2.5 million people took part in rallies staged on the first day of union action on January 29 and with fine weather forecast across the country, turnout is expect to be just as high on Thursday.

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT’S REACTION?

After the January 29 demonstrations, Sarkozy met union leaders and offered a package of concessions worth some 2.6 billion euros, which was aimed at poorer households, including tax breaks and extra benefits for the jobless and big families. This time around, the government says it will not meet unions again and will not be adding further measures to its stimulus plan.

WHAT IS THE UNION RESPONSE TO THE APPARENT DEADLOCK?

Unions are already planning major demonstrations on the Labor Day May 1 national holiday. They believe the government will eventually concede ground, pointing to a 6-week general strike on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, when the authorities finally caved in to wage hike demands.

IS THE SITUATION REALLY THAT BAD IN FRANCE?

On the face of it, no. Certainly things are not great. Analysts predict the economy will contract by as much as 2 percent in 2009, with unemployment expect to jump to almost 10 percent from 8.2 percent at the end of 2008. But many of France’s neighbors are in a much worse position, with unemployment in Spain predicted to hit almost 20 percent and Britain’s economy widely expected to contract by 3 percent.

SO WHY THE ANGST, AND COULD IT GET OUT OF HAND?

France has a long tradition of street protests and the national mood is glum. Many voters hoped Sarkozy would usher in a new era of well-being in France and feel bitterly disappointed by the results to date.

Adding to the government’s problems there are a number of disputes flaring up that are unrelated to Thursday’s protest. [nLI572947]

The risk for Sarkozy is that the general malaise morphs into a single mass movement. However, the real fear is that the economic crisis might give rise to radical, violent forces that would be hard to control. Employers are especially anxious that they are being made scapegoats for the downturn. Workers pelted managers at a tire factory with eggs last week and bosses fear further attacks unless public anger diminishes.

Writing by Crispian Balmer

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