Sarkozy's Jeudi Noir France Prepares for Massive General Strike

Labor unions and opposition parties in France have called a nationwide general strike for Thursday to protest the government's handling of the financial crisis. Public anger is rising at President Sarkozy's bailout of banks and industry a year after he said the state's coffers were "empty."

By in Paris

Long queues at metro stations, cancelled trains and disrupted flights, understaffed schools and hospitals, closed shutters at post offices and banks, and on top of everything cuts to radio and TV schedules. France is bracing itself for "Black Thursday" after a broad alliance of labor unions and opposition parties called for a massive general strike. The planned stoppages in both the public and private sectors are aimed at protesting President Nicolas Sarkozy's style of crisis management.

A new installation in the European Council building pictures France emblazoned with the word "strike."
Getty Images

A new installation in the European Council building pictures France emblazoned with the word "strike."

The strikes are planned for 77 towns and cities and will start late on Wednesday night and end early on Friday morning. Rail traffic will be particularly badly effected -- only 60 percent of the high-speed TGV trains will be in operation, while 30 percent of domestic and up to 10 percent of European flights will also be cancelled. Employees in the private sector are also taking part: The labor unions in supermarket chains like Carrefour or Auchan have called a strike, as have workers in companies like Renault and Peugot-Citroen, who have been particularly hard hit by job losses and cuts to working hours.

Unlike the protests just over a year ago against the loss of purchasing power and public sector cuts in education and health, this week's strikes are of a more overtly political nature. France's eight main trade unions and opposition parties ranging from the center to Socialists, communists and the far-left, are all regarding the general strike as a "cry of protest." "In the face of the crisis," says Francois Chereque, general secretary of the left-wing CFDT union, "the feeling of injustice has spread."

The public malaise has been augmented by Sarkozy's bailout plans. Just 10 months after telling voters in January 2008 that the public "coffers are empty," the president turned around in October and bailed out banks with €320 billion ($424 billion) in loan guarantees. Two months later, in December, the government announced it would provide €22 billion in aid to small- and medium-sized businesses hit by the downturn and approved a €26 billion economic stimulus package focused mostly on infrastructural investments, while only devoting modest sums to encourage private consumption.

This crisis is not just something that is affecting the unemployed, pensioners and young people with poor prospects -- those who in recent years have particularly suffered from rising rents and the increased price of gas and groceries. The malaise has now reached the middle classes, too. The manager of a successful German trading and services company says that in his firm, "employees who earn €2,000 to €3,000 a month are afraid of downward social mobility."

The mass movement called into being by the labor unions is manna from heaven for the opposition parties. In particular it offers the Socialist Party (PS), which has been severely weakened by leadership battles and infighting, the chance to lead the charge against President Sarkozy and his Prime Minister Francois Fillon. With an eye firmly on the European Parliament elections in June, the new PS leader Martine Aubry wants her party to once again become the mouthpiece of those who oppose Sarkozy. "We are not going to simply lie back and wait for the next elections in 2012," she said on Tuesday and called for an active participation by party members and a "big demonstration."

That is exactly what the government is now afraid of. Thanks to a comfortable majority in parliament, Fillon easily weathered a motion of no confidence on Tuesday over its handling of the economic crisis. Nevertheless, there is a danger that "Black Thursday" will spark a state of constant social unrest: A survey carried out by pollster BVA for L'Express magazine found that 68 percent of French citizens see the strikes in a positive light, despite all the accompanying inconveniences for commuters and families with school-aged children.

This is reason enough for the government to change course. Ministers and leaders of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) at first depicted the impending protests as inopportune and called for "national solidarity" in these times of crisis. Now, however, the president and prime minister are being more cautious. "It's understandable that the French are concerned," Fillon admitted. Sarkozy also patronizingly addressed the issue during a visit to an airplane subcontractor in Châteauroux. "It is normal to see people demonstrating in a democracy -- there is suffering, it isn't easy," he said. "Politics are successful when they achieve reform despite moments of difficulty."

Still, the president plans to take a more modest approach to his many projects, according to the Élysée. And given the possible disturbances on "Black Thursday," Sarkozy has not only postponed his trip to Africa at short notice, he also cancelled all of his official appointments for the day.


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