As governments on both sides of the Atlantic scramble to cope with a global financial crisis most observers are calling the greatest since the Great Depression, the French citizenry seems to be losing patience.
Hundreds of thousands of angry and fearful French workers mounted nationwide strikes and protests Thursday to demand President Nicolas Sarkozy do far more to fight the economic crisis.
Public and private sector workers united in the protest to seek increases in salaries, greater protection for their jobs and more intensive government efforts to simulate the economy.
Commuters in Paris braved freezing temperatures and biked, walked and even took boats to work, as trains were idled by the strike and stations stood empty. But a 2007 law ensuring minimal transport service meant that some subways, buses and suburban rail lines still had to operate — and those that did were stuffed to the gills. Delays were considerable. Some schools were closed, banks were shut, and mail went undelivered as thousands of teachers and postal employees across the country stayed off the job. Some workers at factories hit by layoffs also joined the strike. Hospital staff also stayed off the job.
Jobs top the list of worker concerns amid a marked deterioration of the French economy that has accelerated in recent months. Growth in 2009 is expected to be close to zero, unemployment is rising at the fastest rate in 15 years, and consumer spending has plunged. Sarkozy recently announced a euro26 billion ($33 billion) stimulus plan, but the unions believe it is not enough.
Marie-Georges Buffet, the head of the French Communist Party, said she hoped that today’s protest would lead to others in the future. “Today is the first large day of unified mobilization,” she said on I-tele. “I hope tomorrow that there will be others.”
For their part, commuters appeared resigned to the year’s first big strike. “I’m not against the fact that people demonstrate to defend their interest and their benefits as they say, but is this really the best time to do it considering what is going on right now with the economic crisis?” Pierre Rattier, a commuter, told AP Television News.
A fair question, indeed.
Some governments have spent a larger share of GDP than others in an attempt to create a stimulus to mute the effects of this crisis. Thus far, it’s not at all clear that such efforts have been helpful. Beyond that, unlike other major economic crises of the past, unemployment has not yet gone up substantially in most affected countries. We have, instead, a liquidity crisis in the financial sector that has sent shock waves throughout the economy. Increasing the size of an already massive welfare state is unlikely to solve that issue.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.