Huge turnout for ‘Black Thursday’ of strikes

Commuters across France face transportation disruptions as government and transport workers stage walkouts in a major test for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government’s handling of the economic crisis.


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President Nicolas Sarkozy once joked that French workers went on strike so often “no one even noticed.” He’s not saying that any more. On Thursday morning France entered a state of virtual paralysis as hundreds of thousands of people began mass strikes around the country, called for by all the major French unions to protest the president’s handling of the economic crisis.


“When eight unions, representing many different professional fields, go on strike, it means something," said Ian Brossat, President of the Paris Council’s communist group, in FRANCE 24’s Debate. “The relevant question is: why does a large segment of the population support the strikes?” Polls show that 69% of the French understand the protesters' discontent.

According to the Ministry of Education, around half of France's primary school teachers are on strike, joined by 28% of secondary school teachers, whereas a teacher's union estimated the number of strikers at close to 70%. The SNCF state rail company estimates that around 36.7% of its employees were on strike this morning. In total, hundreds of thousands of workers from the public and private sector hit the streets to demand protection from layoffs, a boost to low wages and an end to public sector cutbacks.

Disrupted transportation systems

Millions of commuters encountered long delays on their way to work, with rail and metro services pared down to the minimum. The SNCF said 60 percent of TGV high-speed trains would run and warned of even worse disruption on regional lines: only 40% of local Transilian trains and 30% of inter-city Corail trains would be operating.


“Most people were able to get information beforehand about what trains were running and came in very early especially to take the first trains out,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Regan Ranucci reported from Paris’s Montparnasse train station.


In Paris itself, Metro transportation is functioning relatively normally, with 75% of trains on schedule. Railway workers explained they wanted strikers to be able to get to protests. Suburban train traffic is badly disrupted: there were no RER B trains functioning early Thursday morning despite forecasts that one-fifth of trains would run.


Traffic jams are not as bad as feared on Thursday morning: a 136 kilometer slowdown was reported at 8h30 am on major roads, less than the 180 kilometer jam from last November’s strikes.


Airline traffic is moderately affected by the strike, with 30% of incoming and outgoing flights cancelled at Orly airport, and 10% at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport.


Mass protests

Parents scrambled to find baby-sitting solutions as most schools announced yet again that they would not meet the government requirement to supervise children with 25% of teachers on strike. Public daycare centers also had limited staff. Teachers and students are expected to participate massively in today’s protests.


More than 200 protests are taking place around France, both in Paris and most major cities, to call on Sarkozy's right-wing government to take action to protect jobs and the social security net from the economic downturn.


"We're just asking that the money that has been handed out to companies, to revive the economy, be redistributed among workers, and not used to guarantee shareholder's dividends", explains Daniel Chalier, a union activist from Clermond-Ferrand.


However government members and union leaders alike agree that, beyond the protests, long-term solutions need to be adopted, and fast. Although he didn’t specify how long the strikes would last nor whether there would be future protests planned, union leader Jean-Claude Mailly claimed that unions “weren’t planning to schedule a protest every week”.


“I don’t think the protests will change much since (French Prime Minister) François Fillon said that the government will go ahead with planned reforms, and President Nicolas Sarkozy said he doesn’t intend to change his policies,” Socialist opposition party spokesman Benoit Hamon told FRANCE 24. “Whenever people have expressed discontent, the government’s reflex is to silence them without answering to their concerns. The situation will remain deadlocked as long as that’s the case”.


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