PARIS, (Reuters) – Up to 3 million people took to the streets across France yesterday to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s handling of the economic crisis and demand more help for struggling workers.
The protests, which polls show are backed by three-quarters of the French public, reflect growing disillusion with Sarkozy’s pledges of reform as the crisis has thrown tens of thousands out of work and left millions more worried about their jobs.
Bright spring sunshine helped the turnout and the total reported by union organisers surpassed the 2.5 million seen on an earlier day of protest on Jan. 29.
Streets in central Paris were packed with protesters waving anti-Sarkozy placards and chanting slogans, with badges reading “Get lost you little jerk!”, a comment made by Sarkozy to a protestor at an agriculture show, much in evidence.
“There are more and more workers who feel they are not responsible for this crisis but that they are the main victims of it,” said Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT, one of the eight trade unions organising the strikes.
More than 2 million people are out of work in France and even many with a job struggle with the high cost of living.
A large public sector payroll and a relatively generous welfare state has kept French people better protected than many in other countries, but there has been deep public anger at plant closures and stories of corporate excess. Sarkozy, elected in 2007 on a pledge to shake up the French economy, has seen his approval ratings plunge as he has poured billions into bailing out banks and carmakers but rejected union demands for higher pay and tax hikes for the rich.
“People are in the streets and they are suffering, there are more and more people out of work and something has to be done,” said Sylvie Daenenck, marching in Paris. “We shouldn’t just be giving money to the bosses.”
The CGT said 3 million people had joined the protests in Paris and provincial towns and cities, although the interior ministry said only 1.2 million took part.
“We haven’t moved up to another stage in terms of participation since Jan. 29,” Raymond Soubie, Sarkozy’s adviser on social affairs told RTL radio. But he added: “It is a very significant movement that we have to pay close attention to.”
He said measures already passed to help low income workers and pensioners would begin to have an impact from next month but he ruled out extra aid in response to the protests. Sarkozy’s room for manoeuvre has been limited by the dire state of French public finances, which have been drastically strained by the need to prop up the fragile financial sector.