France hit by nationwide strike

Hundreds of thousands of French workers staged a nationwide strike today to try to force President Nicolas Sarkozy and business leaders to do more to protect jobs and wages during the economic crisis.

Public transport was snarled in many cities, scores of flights were cancelled, and schools, banks, hospitals, the post office, law courts and state broadcasters were also expected to be hit by the protest.

The strike aims to highlight fears of growing unemployment, discontent over Sarkozy's reluctance to help consumers and resentment towards bankers blamed for the economic slump.

"We need to sound a cry of anger," said Francois Chereque, head of the moderate CFDT union.

In a rare show of unity, France's eight national unions have backed the strike call and drawn up a joint list of demands for the government and companies, which they accuse of trying to use the crisis as a pretext to lay off workers and cut costs.

It is the first such protest linked to the economic crisis to hit a major industrialised nation and was backed by the majority of French voters, according to opinion polls.

However, it was not expected to snowball or threaten government stability.

Although France does not face the sort of economic woes that are battering neighbours such as Spain and Britain, its jobless rate is climbing steadily, hitting 2.07 million in November, up 8.5 per cent on the year.

With analysts predicting that the economy will contract by up to 2 per cent in 2009, Sarkozy drew up a 26 billion euro stimulus package at the end of last year that looked to encourage investment and protect major industries.

Union leaders say he should follow Britain's example and offer help for consumers.

"For several months now, especially since the crisis exploded, we have been asking the government for various measures, notably help to boost consumer spending," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere union.

"Up until now we have not had any response and when you don't get dialogue you get a show of force," he told Reuters.

The unions have a point to prove to Sarkozy, who said in July that "these days, when there is a strike, nobody notices".

Large rallies are planned for numerous cities today and unions say the government will have to listen.

"Those who thought there was no longer a visible social movement are going to get their answer," said Bernard Thibault, head of the hardline CGT union, in the run-up to the strike.

Sarkozy confounded the unions during his first year and a half in office, pushing through reforms at a dizzying pace and refusing to bow to street protests over unpopular measures, but he has recently seemed more wary of social conflict.

In December, fearful that Greek youth riots would spread to France, he shelved a disputed school reform plan after teenage pupils staged street protests against it.

He has been careful not to antagonise unions over Thursday's strike and ministers say Sarkozy is listening to their message.

"He takes these protests very seriously. He is not afraid, but very attentive," said Veterans Minister Jean-Marie Bockel.

"I am not saying everything is going well, but when you are very careful and attentive that limits the risks of troubles," he told a group of foreign reporters this week.