With additional reporting from Anoyke Powell.
The January 29th general strike in France – called "Black Thursday" – demonstrated that the French public could be losing patience with Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP administration. Eight major trade unions, representing teachers, postal employees, rail workers, and other public sector employees, along with a smattering of private sector unions, took to the streets across the country to protest against the government’s handling of the global financial train wreck.
Facing rising living costs, stagnant wages, and proposed reforms meant to liberalize labor and cut public spending, an estimated 1.4 million marchers came out to state that they should not take the fall for a crisis that many blame on greedy bankers.
"Everybody knows we are living through a worldwide crisis of the like that hasn’t been seen for 70 years," said Bernard Thibault, head of one of the largest unions, the CGT, to the Le Parisien newspaper. Average people did not cause the crisis, he added, and "we can’t accept that workers are the only ones to suffer the consequences."
By far the largest demonstrations were held in Paris. According to organizers, nearly 300,000 workers and students ditched offices, assembly lines, and classrooms to gather at Place de Bastille on Thursday afternoon.
The most obvious signs of the general strike were felt by commuters and students. The RER rail network linking the suburbs to Paris ground nearly to a halt with only one in five trains running on its major lines. With only two of its 14 lines functioning normally, the metro was also pared down to a minimum. High speed TGV trains connecting Paris to other cities experienced disruptions. According to France 24, a news outlet, by 8:30 am an elephantine traffic jam extended nearly 136 kilometers, or roughly 84 miles. Parents scrambled to drop their kids at overflowing daycare centers as schools closed. According to the Education Ministry, one in three teachers went on strike in response to plans to cut 13,500 teaching posts.
"My salary hasn’t risen in over five years," said 50-year-old private school teacher Mr. M. Cice while demonstrating at Bastille. "I used to fill my shopping cart with 15 euros. Today 15 euros doesn’t get you anything."
Though infrequent for private sector workers to strike alongside public employees, "Black Thursday" proved to be a rare moment of unity. Concerns such as plummeting purchasing power and degraded working conditions – issues affecting both public sector and private sector employees – were seen as some of the main factors that pegged public sympathy for the demonstrations at 69%, according to a poll conducted by the daily Le Parisien newspaper.
"I am protesting today in support of the private sector – which rarely mobilizes – and the public sector to which I belong," explained Alain de Veneur, a public high school teacher. Mr. de Veneur, who marched from Bastille to Republic in downtown Paris with his 12-year-old son and wife, cited the elimination of teaching positions proposed by Education Minister Xavier Darcos as his major worry. "Enough is enough. It’s time to act."
The mood at the protest was surprisingly ebullient. One group of students sported stickers with the saying Rêve General, or General Dream, a wordplay on Greve General, meaning General Strike. Rock music blared as large balloons with the names of each union floated overhead.
At dusk on Thursday, as most of the crowds returned home, a scuffle broke out between youths and the police near the Opera in central Paris. Still, even with a few torched trashcans and some tear gas fired, overall, Thursday’s protest was a marked departure from recent demonstrations challenging President Sarkozy’s policies.
In October and November 2008, angry high school students flooded France’s streets in response to planned education cuts. Due to their intensity and numbers, where the fear of a violent, Greek-inspired student movement could erupt, the Education Ministry eventually scraped its reforms. During the recent Israeli-Hamas dogfight, an estimated 25,000 demonstrated in Paris in support of Gaza. Bitter in tone and with police cordons lining the entire route, the protest eventually erupted into a storm of smashed windows, glass bottles, and tear gas canisters raining between the riot police and protesters.
President Sarkozy introduced a $34 billion stimulus plan last December, which the Senate passed on Thursday, January 29th. Still, many protesters believe the stimulus plan overwhelmingly aids banks and big businesses, rather than directly boosting consumer spending or battling unemployment.
"We’re just asking that the money that has been handed out to companies, to revive the economy, be redistributed among workers," explained Daniel Chalier, a union activist, to France 24. "And not used to guarantee shareholder’s dividends."
Perhaps due to the unusually sunny weather, or maybe because the collective sting of kamikaze economics breeds unity, but as Thursday drew to a close, the general feeling was hopeful.
Elizabeth Souquerovillois, a retired demographic researcher, longtime member of the CGT union, and a member of the Ligue des Droits de l’Hommes, or the Human Rights League summed up the mood.
"I feel like people are finally lifting their heads again."
Sammy Loren is an independent filmmaker and journalist. To check out his other projects please visit www.mindfulmediacollective.blogspot.com
Photo from Flickr by lemarakk