Rage is the order of the day in strike-hit France

March 18th, 2009 - 11:29 am ICT by IANS  

By Siegfried Mortkowitz
Paris, March 18 (DPA) The general strike and nationwide protests called in France Thursday come at the worst possible time for President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government. Recent factory closures and layoffs have left workers angry and put the country’s notoriously intransigent trade unions in a confrontational mood.

The mood has turned so sour that Sarkozy’s “house newspaper”, Le Figaro, has even taken to attributing the government’s economic stimulus plan, not to Sarkozy, as had been the rule, but to Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

Under a headline that read “Crisis: Fillon is unconvincing”, Le Figaro Monday reported that a new poll showed that 62 percent of French adults judged that the government’s response to the economic crisis is “bad”. In addition, nearly three out of four respondents said Thursday’s strikes and protests were justified.

But the poll numbers, pessimistic as they are, do not adequately reflect the true frame of mind among French workers.

“Rage is the order of the day,” a union representative Antonio da Costa said about the morale of workers at a French factory belonging to the German tyre manufacturer Continental after the company said it would close the site at Clairoix and make its 1,120 employees redundant.

Late Monday, workers from the site hurled eggs at executives from Continental France, forcing the suspension of a meeting between management and union representatives.

The decision to close the factory despite apparent guarantees given by the company to keep it open until 2012 also provoked outrage in the government, with Finance Minister Christine Lagarde saying she was “shocked” by the decision.

There was also general shock when French oil giant Total said last week it would eliminate some 555 jobs by 2013 just one week after announcing that it had earned record profits of nearly 14 billion euros ($18.2 billion) in 2008.

On Jan 29, trade unions said that some 2.5 million people took part in nationwide protests to express their unhappiness with the economic policies of Sarkozy and his government.

That prompted Sarkozy to announce tax relief and other aid measures for low-wage earners worth about 2.6 billion euros.

But Fillon - and not Sarkozy - said Monday there would be no more aid measures because the government could not afford to incur more debt.

The growing anger among French workers - a majority of whom were already fiercely anti-Sarkozy - is now threatening to transform the protests into a more radical, and potentially dangerous, anti-government movement.

Recent polls show that the economic crisis has made France’s left-wing extremists more appealing.

A survey by the BVA institute showed that the French find the head of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, Olivier Besancenot, just as credible as Sarkozy in dealing with the economy and significantly more concerned than the president about their problems.

This shift away from the centre could create some unhappy surprises in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament and could ultimately lead to a social explosion.

The Socialist former prime minister Laurent Fabius expressed the general anxiety here when he said, “If the policy of the government does not change, I am afraid that in the spring… because of this desperate situation there will be vast and radical movements of revolt.”

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