Sarkozy under pressure as French protests hit streets

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.

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