Strikes hobble services in France

Demonstrators in Nice, France, on Thursday. (Lionel Cironneau/The Associated Press)

PARIS: Hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike Thursday across France, snarling transportation and closing post offices and schools in a sign of discontent with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s response to the economic crisis.


"I’m tired and freezing after having to wait half an hour on the platform at my station this morning," Sandrine Dermont, 34, a secretary for a wholesaling company, told LCI television in the Paris station of Gare St. Lazare. "But I’m ready to accept that if it’s the cost for a movement to defend our paychecks and jobs." Dermont added that she was planning to demonstrate during her lunch break.


Mass transit in the capital was in chaos, with service on suburban commuter lines reduced or nonexistent, and most subways and buses running well below normal frequencies. The Education Ministry estimated that 37 percent of teachers walked out. In Marseille, the country’s second largest city, television showed buses crammed with commuters as subway service was completely interrupted.


Across France, airports were operating at reduced capacity and flights were delayed. The rail line that serves the two Paris airports was completely shut down, stranding arriving travelers in long taxi lines.


As many as 200 demonstrations were planned across the country, including a massive march across Paris in the afternoon.


The unions have called on the government to make employment its top priority, bolster household purchasing power, reduce income inequality and regulate banks more stringently. Those demands have resonated with a public that has been calling for better public services, even as the government has been pushing ahead with reform plans that would cut public-sector jobs, particularly among teachers.


Eight big French unions had called for a general strike, which would shut down virtually all services, but by midday Thursday reports suggested participation was well below that level, with the Paris subway even running a little better than expected.


"Everybody knows we are living through a worldwide crisis of the like that hasn’t been seen for 70 years," Bernard Thibault, head of one of the biggest French unions, the CGT, was quoted as saying Wednesday in the daily Le Parisien newspaper. Wage earners had nothing to do with the creation of the crisis, he said, and "we can’t accept that workers are the only ones to suffer the consequences."


Air France was trying to maintain its full long-haul schedule, while canceling some flights on other routes. Workers at the state-affiliated utility Électricité de France and the gas company GDF Suez walked out, as did some employees of banks and big international companies.


"The unions are concentrated in the public sector, and they have had a hard time mobilizing private-sector support," said Guy Groux, a specialist on the union movement at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris. "But the economic crisis is bringing them together. And there is strong public support this time."


According to the results of a poll by CSA-Opinion for Le Parisien, 69 percent of the French public either "supports" or "has sympathy" for the call to strike Thursday. No margin of error was available for the nationwide survey of 1,007 French adults carried out on Jan. 21 and 22.


Faced with expectations that the French economy will contract by nearly 2 percent this year, Sarkozy in December announced a 26 billion, or $35 billion, stimulus plan.


German transport strikes


Regional commuters in southern and western Germany faced delays early Thursday as rail workers from the Transnet and GDBA unions staged strikes to protest work schedules and wages, Bloomberg reported from Berlin, citing state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn AG.


National routes experienced few problems, Deutsche Bahn said in an e-mailed statement.

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