Page last updated at 21:27 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

France takes strike in its stride

Protests in Paris
Protests were colourful and varied in Place de la Bastille

Millions of French workers in both public and private sectors are taking industrial action in protest at the government's handling of the economic crisis. The BBC's Alasdair Sandford in Paris reports from a day of strikes.

2030 GMT

It was an exuberant colourful scene at the Place de la Bastille, with no sign of the trouble seen later at the end of the march.

There were hundreds of banners and balloons, young people waving flags at the foot of the statue, the smell of burgers, the sound of drums, and the usual distorted announcements from organisers.

So many people crammed into the square that most had to wait some time before they could join the cortege as it crawled towards the Republique district.

In short, a typical French protest.

But this one was billed as being different.

There was no single issue, although loosely it all came together in defence of "jobs and wages".

Low pay, job insecurity and the fear of unemployment were constant themes.

From cleaners to opera

A bright orange banner listed the homeless, builders, restaurant workers and cleaners, saying they'd all had enough.

Nearby, a huge banner at the top of the steps read "Paris Opera on strike".

Underneath, rather more discreet notices pinned to the doors of the Opera Bastille said that tonight's performance of Madame Butterfly was cancelled due to industrial action.

Many were here to protest against public sector cuts.

Sebastien, a teacher in the northern Paris suburbs, said the government's policies were making social problems worse.

"They only think about cutting jobs," he said.

"Compared to 10 years ago, a kid has one year less mathematics teaching and one year less French during their time at school."

The danger for the government is that this one-day protest will turn into a larger movement, reflecting a deeper social discontent.

1300 GMT
They're calling it "Black Thursday", and the signal that this was not going to be a normal day came on the stroke of midnight.
Man in train station
Congestion and disruption are less than in previous strikes

Instead of the usual news bulletin, public radio broadcast a rather sombre announcement about industrial action.

Come the morning and it was clear that many had been prepared for today's disruption.

Either people were staying at home - or they were on strike themselves.

The cycle ride into work from the northern Paris suburbs into the centre - admittedly a little later than usual - was a breeze.

During previous strikes the gridlock had been so bad that much of the journey was carried out on the pavement.

The mid-morning figures confirmed that there was actually less congestion on the roads than on a normal day.

The communique said blandly that at 0800 local time (0700GMT) there were only 136km of jams in the Paris region compared to the usual 150km.

A word of warning: this has happened before.

Well the economy doesn't seem to be as bad as that, so to add to the problems isn't perhaps a good idea

If they are not actually taking part, the French have long become deft at dealing with strikes and adapting accordingly - at least that is the case on day one.

However, if a one-day stoppage unexpectedly becomes prolonged - and rail workers are due to strike until Friday morning - then chaos can indeed follow, as people who had taken the day off try to get to work only to find that public transport is still badly disrupted.

At St Lazare, one of the largest mainline railway stations in Paris, the scene this morning was like that on a public holiday.

The concourse was largely deserted; the small army of staff deployed to help commuters deal with the strike stood around fidgeting, looking largely redundant.

A glance at the departure screens seemed to show almost as many trains as usual, posing few problems for people going to work.

"I only saw one train so I took it. The service seems to be working," said one woman.

What did she think of the strike?

Banner wielded by strikers proclaiming "The anger of the people"
Unions are demanding more action to protect jobs and wages

"Well the economy doesn't seem to be as bad as that, so to add to the problems isn't perhaps a good idea."

That wasn't the view of one young man, smoking a cigarette outside the station as he waited for his train.

He said he planned to demonstrate at the main protest rally in Paris in the afternoon.

"I think it's good to go on strike. We hear a lot about the crisis facing the banks, but I agree with those taking action."

The state railway company SNCF said that by mid-morning 36.7% of their staff had joined the action - 41% according to the CGT union.

A key test for the government - and the unions - will be the size of the afternoon protest rallies around the country.

This is being billed as the biggest day of action since President Sarkozy came to power.

However at least some would-be protesters were reportedly having trouble with their plans to travel to Paris to join the main march.

Their original idea to make the journey by coach had to be revised - because coach drivers were stopping work themselves to join the strike.

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