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About a million French workers staged a one-day strike yesterday and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in a show of force against President Sarkozy and his handling of the economic slump.
The stoppage, mainly by public sector workers, closed many schools but failed to paralyse public transport as the strikers had hoped. The Paris transport system remained about 75 per cent normal. But quiet stations and roads around the capital and other cities showed that many people had stayed at home for what had been billed as “Black Thursday”.
After a big and noisy march through central Paris, union leaders claimed a triumph for what they depicted as the biggest day of protest for a decade. The high point came when a huge crowd packed the Place de l’Opéra at the heart of the Right Bank, and sang The Internationale, the old revolutionary anthem.
The main unions, in rare harmony, estimated that 2.5 million had demonstrated around the country, with 380,000 in Paris. The Interior Ministry put the total at 1.08 million, with 65,000 in the capital.
The Paris march appeared bigger than previous protests against Mr Sarkozy’s reforms since he took office in May 2007 but smaller than protests against Jacques Chirac in 2006.
In Marseilles, the Mediterranean port city famous for its tradition of exaggeration, unions claimed that 200,000 had marched, while police reported 20,000.
Mr Sarkozy’s Government played down the “day of mobilisation” as relatively routine by French standards. “This was by no means exceptional in terms of a public sector stoppage,” said Luc Chatel, the Cabinet Minister who acts as government spokesman. “It was about the same as in May this year and in 2006.”
In keeping with Mr Sarkozy’s new conciliatory tone, Mr Chatel said that the Government was paying attention and understood the message that people were worried about their livelihoods, with rising unemployment and closing factories.
Bernard Thibault, the head of the powerful CGT union, said the protests had achieved their aim of warning the President about the extent of France’s malaise. Mr Sarkozy must now react to the discontent over his cuts to the public sector. “He cannot say ‘I saw nothing, I heard nothing and I have nothing to say’,” Mr Thibault said.
Mr Thibault and other union leaders emphasised what they said was the unusually large turnout from the private sector — a group that usually stays away from France’s one-day industrial actions by state employees.
Contingents from Renault, Air France and even the stock exchange were visible in the crowd, but the marches were dominated by transport, health, post office and other state staff. A quarter of all civil servants stopped work, the Government said.
Martine Aubry, the new leader of the opposition Socialist Party, used the day of action to make her first public assault on the Sarkozy Government. “We have a President who is pushing blindly ahead even after he took us into recession through his policies before the financial crisis began,” she said before marching near the front of the procession in Paris.
In a rare show of unity, the unions drew up a joint list of demands, insisting that Mr Sarkozy should drop reforms that they see as a threat to public services and refocus stimulus measures at consumers rather than companies. France’s economic woes are less severe than Spain’s or Britain’s, but unemployment has risen by 8.5 per cent over the past year. The unions want Mr Sarkozy to increase his ¤26 billion package aimed at stimulating the economy.