PARIS – Hundreds of thousands of angry and fearful French workers mounted nationwide strikes and protests Thursday to demand President Nicolas Sarkozy do far more to fight the economic crisis.
Public and private sector workers united in the protest to seek increases in salaries, greater protection for their jobs and more intensive government efforts to simulate the economy.
Commuters in Paris braved freezing temperatures and biked, walked and even took boats to work, as trains were idled by the strike and stations stood empty. But a 2007 law ensuring minimal transport service meant that some subways, buses and suburban rail lines still had to operate — and those that did were stuffed to the gills. Delays were considerable.
Some schools were closed, banks were shut, and mail went undelivered as thousands of teachers and postal employees across the country stayed off the job. Some workers at factories hit by layoffs also joined the strike. Hospital staff also stayed off the job.
Eight national unions banded together to support the strike, an unusual show of force. The big question was whether private sector employees would join a major demonstration planned Thursday afternoon in Paris.
Bernard Thibault, the head of the influential CGT union, said it was not possible for Sarkozy to say "I saw nothing, I heard nothing and I have nothing to say."
Over a third of the country's teachers refused to go to school. Elementary schools were especially hard hit, and many parents had to stay home to care for their children.
A quarter of all postal workers stayed off their jobs. Some workers at the Paris stock exchange took to the streets. Just over 10 percent of flights at Charles de Gaulle airport were canceled and a third at the smaller Orly airport. Many flights took off late.
For his part, Sarkozy has remained silent on the strike. On Thursday, he had nothing planned on his agenda and was spending the day in the Elysee Palace.
Despite Sarkozy's wait-and-see attitude to what has been dubbed "Black Thursday," his government is anxious and has paid close attention to unrest in other European countries such as Latvia and Lithuania. A major reform of French high schools was scrapped late last year after student riots in Greece.
One of the government's big worries is to ensure that Thursday's labor unrest does is not transformed into a wider social protest such as that inflamed French suburbs in the fall of 2005.
Jobs top the list of worker concerns amid a marked deterioration of the French economy that has accelerated in recent months. Growth in 2009 is expected to be close to zero, unemployment is rising at the fastest rate in 15 years, and consumer spending has plunged.
Sarkozy recently announced a euro26 billion ($33 billion) stimulus plan, but the unions believe it is not enough.
Marie-Georges Buffet, the head of the French Communist Party, said she hoped that today's protest would lead to others in the future.
"Today is the first large day of unified mobilization," she said on I-tele. "I hope tomorrow that there will be others."
For their part, commuters appeared resigned to the year's first big strike.
"I'm not against the fact that people demonstrate to defend their interest and their benefits as they say, but is this really the best time to do it considering what is going on right now with the economic crisis?" Pierre Rattier, a commuter, told AP Television News.