Page last updated at 17:31 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

The grim mood behind France's banners

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

France certainly knows how to give a good demo and today's parades provided a vivid focus for growing public anger over the economy.

Strikers block a supermarket in the French overseas territory of La Reunion
In La Reunion strikers blocked a supermarket with trolleys

To the music of whistles and fire-crackers, hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Paris and other cities, shouting down the government and demanding more state protection to see them through the crisis.

Schools and public offices were shut, transport disrupted, radio stations off air - in all, the classic repertoire of the French journee d'action, or "day of action".

Why is it only in France that such demonstrations are taking place?

After all, it is people the world over who are bearing the brunt of the recession. But they are not on the street.

The answer is simple. France is France. It has its own political and social codes, forged in the Revolution and over the course of two turbulent centuries.


Here more than elsewhere, public protest is the legitimate expression of political difference - it is how they get governments to listen.

I do feel that this strike is necessary - people on low income can hardly afford to pay the rent
Coralie Diatkine, musician, Paris

Today's protesters want many things from the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. They want a rise in the minimum wage. They want an end to public sector job cuts.

They are demanding the removal of a 50% personal tax ceiling that benefits the rich. Some of them say companies that make profits should be banned from making people redundant.

But above all they want to express a gnawing sense of injustice.

As one protester put it, if it was the richest of the rich that created the disaster, why do the poorest of the poor bear the burden?

Recipe for trouble

The government will certainly listen. It may even be sympathetic. But its room for manoeuvre is limited.

On the one hand President Sarkozy can argue that large amounts of money have already been promised to get France through the crisis.

Mr Sarkozy has ruled out reversing reforms

Last December he announced a 26bn euro (£24.3bn)investment programme to kick-start the economy, and following a "social summit" in February a further 2.6bn euros were made available to ease the burden on families.

In addition 6.6bn euros of loans have been made available to bail out the car industry.

He can also argue that France is, if anything, faring better than its neighbours in the crisis, because its generous system of welfare payments acts as a financial cushion.

And that increasing even further France's already massive public debt will only hold back the recovery when it finally comes.

But against that President Sarkozy is well aware that the mood in the country is grim, bordering on ugly.

In a country where wages are low by Western European standards, many people already feel close to the bread line. The current wave of job losses - and unemployment will increase to 10% this year - has only exacerbated the prevailing insecurity.

Add to that a widespread sense of outrage at the "favours" done by the government to bankers and businesses, and the mix is potentially explosive.

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