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Sarkozy's talk fails to sway unions

Text by Marie THIEL

Latest update : 2009-02-06

French President Nicolas Sarkozy made some concessions to trade unions in his prime-time television interview on Thursday night, but did not sweet-talk them into stopping protest actions. They expressed disappointment with his "all talk" tactics.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s staunch defense of his economic policy on prime-time television on Thursday night left national trade unions urging less talk and more action. They expressed disappointment on Friday with his proposals, despite several openings to their calls to help households regain spending power.  

"There was no concrete or immediate action. Everything was put off until further discussion," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union.

Trade unions are increasingly worked up about Sarkozy’s refusal to funnel public funds into stimulating consumption, and his preference for a 2.6-billion-euro investment package to help businesses battle the effects of the financial crisis.

The trade unions are set to hold a round table with the president on February 18 to discuss possible increases to welfare benefits or partial cuts to income tax.

Meanwhile, leaders of the eight union federations have announced a meeting on Monday to co-ordinate new protest actions. Bernard Thibault, head of the large CGT union, hinted at the possibility of a new strike in an interview aired on France’s Europe 1 radio station on Friday, during which he argued that the resident was only concerned with businesses and not with French households.

Sarkozy’s 90-minute interview, the first since the financial crisis hit the country, was aimed at calming an angry nation. On January 29, between 1 and 2.5 million people took part in nationwide rallies as trade unions joined together in a national strike.

"I understand that people are worried. I hear them and I understand them," Sarkozy said on Thursday.

Socialist opposition leader Martine Aubry said France needed action not compassion. "France is sinking at the moment ... (and) the president has not stopped the fall. Ok, he put some things on the table. That is just as well, but it is not good enough and it's not what all our neighbours are doing," she told RTL radio on Friday.

Fifteen million French people tuned in on Thursday night as Sarkozy offered several concessions to trade unions in a live interview at the Elysée palace, including a 1.4-billion-euro package for social projects, earned through interest on public loans issued to ailing banks. “We rescued all the banks, thereby rescuing French savings…It didn’t cost a euro and it actually made money. We can put that money into social programs, for people who need help,” said Sarkozy on Thursday.

However, he ruled out any increase in the minimum wage or generalised reductions in sales taxes, as the trade unions have been urging, suggesting instead that a costly corporate tax be scrapped by 2010, to make French companies more competitive. But local authorities - who are likely to see their funds slashed as a result - are outraged at the president's failure to give any suggestion of local tax reforms or financial compensation.

Other suggestions were put on the table to stem criticism, such as tax breaks for the lowest paid, a raise of child benefits and forcing companies to share profits with their workers.

Up to 69% of the French public supported last weeks’ strikes, fuelling a flurry of anti-Sarkozy activity. The mainstream left-wing opposition has suddenly awaken from a year-long slumber, while the far left has found a new lease of life in a new political party - known as the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) - created by the popular former postman Olivier Besancenot.

Meanwhile, trade unions in France's Caribbean island of Guadeloupe announced that strikes which have lasted over two weeks are to continue. The island has ground to a total halt, creating a serious risk of food shortages. The strikers are warning of "social chaos" if the Paris government and local business leaders fail to meet their demands to lower taxes, hike salaries by 200 euros and slash petrol prices by 50 euro cents a litre. On Thursday, trade unions in the neighbouring island of Martinique called for similar strikes, which were continued on Friday.

Date created : 2009-02-06