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Page last updated at 02:54 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 03:54 UK

Economic woes fuel May Day anger

Trade unions in France have called for French people to come out in force for the traditional May Day march.

Some 300 rallies are planned throughout the country as demonstrators protest against the government's handling of the economic crisis, the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby in Paris says.

Protesters in Compiegne. Photo: March 2009
The last mass protest in March drew more than a million people

Every year on Labour Day thousands of people in France bring their myriad gripes to the streets.

But this year it is a bit different because - with unemployment set to hit 10% by next year and with another 70,000 people joining the ranks of the jobless last month alone - everyone now seems to be chanting the same bitter slogans.

Earlier this week at a big student demonstration on the Left Bank in Paris, few students were interested in talking about controversial university reforms; most wanted to give their opinion about the economic crisis.

"Why should workers pay for the economic crisis?" asks student Fabrice. "Plenty of profits have been made in various sectors. So there is money available and it should be used for the people, not for those who are already well off."

His friends tell us that they are totally depressed by France's bleak financial climate. Protesting in the streets, they say, is their only means of signalling to President Nicolas Sarkozy that they are not happy with the way he is handling this crisis.

Boiling over

Some politicians, such as former Prime Minister Dominque de Villepin, warn that France could be on the verge of a revolution.

Holding a hostage is not a new negotiation tactic. When people feel they are not represented, they take violent action
Antoine Boulay, Vae Solis firm

And although his comments have been swiftly played down by both the governing right-wing UMP party and the opposition Socialists, there are certainly signs here that the anger simmering underneath is beginning to bubble over.

Last week, when workers from the Continental car parts and tyre factory in Compiegne, northern France, learned their plant was to close, they stormed their factory building and a local government office, smashing furniture and trashing equipment.

In the last couple of months there has been a spate of "boss-nappings" when workers - threatened with lay-offs - took their employers hostage for 24 hours or so and used them as bargaining chips to secure better redundancy deals.

One Paris communications company, Vae Solis, has even launched a boss-napping training course for worried employers and has already signed up eight interested businesses.

"Holding a hostage is not a new negotiation tactic," says assistant director Antoine Boulay. "It was used a lot in the 70's by unions… but we are living in very strange and difficult times now. When people feel they are not represented, they take violent action".

Golden parachutes out

Increasingly, here there is a perception that little is being done to protect the ordinary man's job and wages while shareholders and bankers are the government's priority.

There is some ground for potential revolt if you don't want to say the word 'revolution'
Patrick Weil
Social historian

President Sarkozy has publicly condemned the practice of boss napping but he knows he has to tread very carefully.

Interior Ministry spokesman Gerard Gachet admitted that the government was anxious not to "put fuel on the fire" by responding with a too heavy hand. Getting the police involved, he said, was absolutely the last resort.

The government is also in the process of trying to smooth the sense of injustice by outlawing golden parachutes and limiting the size of company bonuses.

But it is much more difficult to explain to the French people how some of the executives who received such generous severance payoffs were from banks bailed out by the French state.

And try telling a hard up Frenchman that the government was able to shore up the struggling banks with a 40bn-euro (£36bn) cash injection, while it offered the poorest households just 2.6bn euros (£2.3bn) in aid.

'Explosive cocktail'

President Sarkozy's own rather flashy bling-bling image does not help much either in these cash strapped times.

Almost everyone I talk to complains that the French leader flaunts his wealth in an insensitive way: last year one of his own advisers was allegedly heard to remark that the president has "gorged himself on happiness while the French people are starved of it".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy looks at vegetables at a fair. Photo: 30 April 2009
The French president has come in for criticism over for flaunting his wealth

Social historian Patrick Weil does not laugh when I suggest to him that France may be on the verge of a revolution.

"When you have this anger," he tells me, "this feeling of resentment, this feeling of injustice represented by the presidential power, yes, there is some ground for potential revolt if you don't want to say the word 'revolution'."

If workers' actions are becoming more radicalised then so are their politics.

With an unpopular government and a weak Socialist opposition party, the hard-left is fast scooping up support.

The economic crisis has given new credence to the ideals of the New Anti-Capitalist Party led by the Trotskyist postman Olivier Besancenot. He wants to bring about a new May 1968 with mass strikes and demonstrations until the government agrees to raise wages.

This will be the third national demonstration in three months, and 72% of French people back it.

The last protest in March drew between one-and-a-half and three million people onto the streets.

It's no coincidence, perhaps, that when last week's unemployment figures showed that 20% of all French under 25-year-olds are now out of work, President Sarkozy quickly announced a $1.7bn (£1.1bn) aid package for young people.

Every French government knows that a combination of disenchanted youth and angry workers on the streets can prove to be an explosive cocktail.



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