Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

French divided by strikes

By Lucy Gill
BBC Monitoring

Commuters at the Gare Saint-Lazare train station in Paris on 19/3/09
Unions are calling for the government to do more to prevent lay-offs

The nationwide strikes in France over the government's handling of the financial crisis are provoking strong, and diverse, reactions among French observers.

The action is attracting sympathy from many in the left-wing press, but is being met with weariness and unease on the right.

France's eight largest union federations called the strikes, dissatisfied with the 2.65bn euros of additional public spending pledged by the government following the last day of industrial action on 29 January.

The unions are calling for the government to do more to prevent private sector lay-offs and to halt to its own plans to reduce the public sector workforce.

"To the demos!" says the editorial in Thursday's left-wing daily Liberation .

The paper says the protesters are acting out of "indignation at the absurdity of an economic stimulus plan that does not stimulate very much and whose essentials don't benefit workers but businesses".

A strike against a crisis makes about as much sense as a demonstration to ban winter
Francois Lenglet, La Tribune

Patrick Apel-Muller in the communist newspaper L'Humanite hopes Thursday's protests will be a "turning point" and questions why it is that "the deficit can be increased - even doubled - at leisure when it comes to bailing out the banks and offering tax breaks to the wealthy, but it would be ruinous if it was increased to help wage-earners live better".

Jean-Marcel Bougereau of the left-leaning weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur , says the strikes throw into sharp relief "social despair on the one hand with the arrogance of those who govern us on the other".

Hostage to public servants?

Not everyone is cheering on the unions, however.

Yves Threard in the right-leaning Le Figaro slams the protesters, who "preferred hitting the streets rather than finding solutions through negotiations".

We have to keep up the pressure for several days
Olivier Besancenot
New Anti-Capitalist Party leader

He says they "dream of a new order, but one that won't rein in their acquired rights and privileges".

"Unlike other countries… France is a hostage to its public servants," he said.

Francois Lenglet, an editorialist in French business daily La Tribune , says that although the strikes may be popular - "France does not lack malcontents" - they are also pointless: "A strike against a crisis makes about as much sense as a demonstration to ban winter."

Some commentators are also concerned that they could get out of hand following the severe social unrest in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, which was only brought to an end when the government agreed to increase the salaries of the lowest paid by 200 euros.

"The conflict in Guadeloupe was led and won outside of the traditional mechanisms with a rallying cry - 'exploitation!' - which while simplistic risks being taken up on the mainland," says Dominique Gerbaud in the Catholic paper, La Croix .

"Left-wing parties and unions will be scared of compromising and creating space for the extreme left."

Hammer the point home

According to Michel Noblecourt in the centre-left Le Monde , "the unions have rejected the idea of trying to bring about in mainland France what has happened in Guadeloupe".

Union demands
Increase minimum wage
Reverse 50% cap on income tax
Suspend public sector job cuts
Measures to protect employment
Government stimulus plan
11bn euros to help businesses improve cashflows
11bn euros of direct state investment
4bn euros of investment by state-owned firms in modernisation
2.65bn euros of tax breaks, and increases in family welfare and short-term unemployment benefits

They want to "show a responsible attitude in their management of the protest," he says.

But the leader of France's far-left New Anti-Capitalist Party, Olivier Besancenot, is happy to cite Guadeloupe as an inspiration. He tells the weekly Journal du Dimanche that Guadeloupe "is an example to reflect on and follow".

"We have to keep up the pressure for several days after [19 March] hammering the point home with the same force. That's where political parties and unions could take inspiration from Guadeloupe," says Mr Besancenot.

Claude Imbert in the centre-right weekly Le Point , however, is scathing about what he described as the French public's "fateful inclination to take to the streets to obtain what it can't get from parliament".

He says that while "France is not for the moment the sick man of Europe… its propensity for springtime rebellions could knock us off course. In a crisis it could get out of control."

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