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Sarkozy meets union heads to discuss crisis

Video by Louis MASSIE , AFP

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2009-02-18

Nicolas Sarkozy met unions on Wednesday to discuss their demands for greater job security as the country faces its worst economic downturn in decades, labelled by the French president as "the crisis of the century".

Watch our Face Off debate - Sarkozy and unions: the big clash


Union leaders meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday to discuss government measures aimed at buffering the effects of the slumping French economy on the country’s ordinary workers and households.

The delegation includes leaders from the five largest employee unions, as well as from the three organisations representing France’s employers.

The meeting was announced swiftly after the unions successfully called for a pan-union strike on Jan. 29 that gathered an impressive turnout of at least 1.4 million worried French workers across the country (unions claim 2.5 million.)

Wednesday’s “social summit” is to address the unions’ concerns, namely growing unemployment, wage increases, social welfare measures and sustained investment, but also to respond to an increasingly dissatisfied French public.

According to an opinion poll published hours before the meeting, up to 60% of French people have a negative perception of their government’s policies in response to the economic crisis.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s government would like to dispel the idea that state economic stimulus efforts are only considering the woes of bankers and employers.

The meeting with the unions comes after a nationally televised interview on Feb. 5, in which Sarkozy was quick to say it was imperative to create better unemployment benefits, especially favourable to young people.

The president will announce the outcome of the tete-a-tete with the unions via television. “If he’s able to show that he has come to an agreement, on at least some but not all the points, it could be an important moment for the president,” Bruno Jeanbart, director of polling for OpinionWay, told FRANCE 24.


Proposals on the table



At Wednesday’s gathering, Sarkozy is expected to put a short list of consumer-boosting policies on the table, including increased aid for part-time workers, assistance to employers at the end of short-term contracts, youth employment programs and a tax break to France’s lowest income earners.

Employee union representatives are expected to present a list of demands focusing on upping both workers wages and spending power. Employer unions said focusing on generalised consumer power was misguided, and defended continued state investments to keep companies operating.

According to AFP, the CGT, France’s biggest union, will be pressing for a 300-euro increase in low wages while the CFDT will propose the creation of a social investment fund of between five and 10 billion euros to help workers who lose their jobs.

But both the president and the unions are conscious that any announcement made after the meeting will be received in the context of deepening social unrest in its overseas territories.

Looming unrest in Guadeloupe

A nearly month-long general strike in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe has heightened concerns in Paris with the potential of discontent spreading, as tens of thousands of French people join the ranks of the jobless each month.

“The fact is that the problem is on the table everywhere,” said SUD union’s Christophe Aguiton referring to the crises in Guadeloupe, Martinique and La Reunion. “It is very dangerous for Sarkozy today, because if we have a big general strike and the climate is really warming up, he will have to do to something.”

“Compromise” has rarely entered Sarkozy’s political vocabulary, but the last thing the French president wants are demonstrations on the mainland that look more like Guadaloupe’s unrest, which not only involved barricades, looting and arson, but gunfire on police and a first death overnight on Tuesday.

A carefully crafted deal on Wednesday could help the president avert mass protests during a second round of nationwide strikes set by the unions for March 19.

Date created : 2009-02-18