More than 1 million people marche to demand the government do more to overcome the economic crisis,
By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
More than 1 million people marched in France on Thursday to demand the government do more to overcome the economic crisis, but planned strikes failed to fulfill a key goal - to paralyze the country.
Skirmishes between several hundred youths and riot police broke out in the square where the Paris march of at least 85,000 ended. Police said the youths - some of them hooded - set garbage cans on fire and showered police with bottles and stones, injuring nine officers.
Police said they detained 49 of the estimated 500 youths as they worked to empty the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris.
France's economy, which was sluggish even before the crisis, is now reeling. The country's national statistics agency said Thursday the economy is shrinking at the fastest pace in more than 30 years.
The Interior Ministry said 1.2 million protesters turned out for about 200 protest marches around the country. Union officials put that figure at 3 million and said that 350,000 marched through the capital.
The day of action was aimed at forcing the government to open new talks on policies to fight the spreading crisis, with unions saying that action so far is far from sufficient.
Measures announced in February by President Nicolas Sarkozy include special bonuses for the needy, and he has said it would stop at that.
Unions had been looking for an opening from Prime Minister Francois Fillon, but during a televised interview Thursday night, he towed the line.
Speaking on TF1 television, Fillon reiterated there would be "no new economic restart plan" and rattled off a series of already-announced measures aimed at limiting the crisis' effects on the needy.
The country's national statistics agency warned that the contraction of the economy will accelerate to 1.5 percent in the first quarter, its worst performance since 1975.
France's economic malaise also involves unemployment. The jobless rate stood at 7.7 percent in the third quarter and is expected to spike to 9.8 percent this year, according to the European Commission, with some of France's largest companies expected to cut their work forces this year.
Strikers weakened some sectors without paralyzing the country. Still, former conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe concluded that street protesters were numerous enough so that "in one way or another, there must be a return to the table" for talks.
The powerful CGT union claimed that more people took to the streets than during a January 29 march when it counted 2.5 million.
Despite the showing in Paris, the strikes were not widely felt in the capital where buses and subways ran at nearly normal rates.
Rail traffic was disrupted throughout France, although the high speed TGV trains that connect the country with European neighbors ran on time. The SNCF train authority said 36 percent of its employees joined the strike. Some suburban Paris lines were seriously hobbled.
Paris' main Charles de Gaulle airport was not affected while there were some disruptions at the capital's No. 2 airport, Orly.
Strikers disrupted services at schools, hospitals and the postal service to varying degrees. Nearly a third of the country's teachers did not go to school, national education officials said.
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