Turnout disappoints in French crisis protests

By AFP

July 15, 2010 Updated Jun 14, 2009 at 9:41 PM CDT

Factory workers headed up marches across France Saturday in a nationwide protest at President Nicolas Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis, but the turnout fell far short of union expectations.

France's eight main unions were staging their fifth day of action this year to demand stronger measures to cushion families from a global downturn that has plunged the country into recession and sent unemployment soaring.

But the 150 marches staged nationwide drew just 71,000 people according to police, 150,000 according to unions, a far cry from the million-strong marches that piled pressure on Sarkozy's government earlier this year.

"Turnout is lower than we had hoped," admitted Bernard Thibault, leader of France's biggest union the CGT, saying the protest movement was running out of steam ahead of the traditional French summer break.

Marching behind union leaders from the Place de la Bastille, between 9,000 and 30,000 people joined the main demo in Paris, according to police and union estimates -- down from between 65,000 and 160,000 on Labour Day.

The head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, conceded the day "will not be a success in terms of numbers."

"What matters most today is to make a splash, to say before the summer and our meeting with the president that we have to go further," Chereque said.

Union leaders, who launched a new round of negotiations with French employers this week, are to meet Sarkozy early next month to review the impact of existing measures to help families through the slowdown.

Sarkozy boosted some social security benefits after the first big union-led protests drew more than a million people into the streets in January, to defuse criticism that he was helping banks and carmakers more than ordinary workers.

But the French president has refused to back down from plans to cut tens of thousands of public sector jobs and has repeatedly rejected union calls for an increase in the minimum wage.

Three quarters of the French public say they still support the union demands, but only one third believe they have the power to change government policy, a recent BVA poll showed.

Rail employees, hospital staff and university lecturers angry at reforms joined many of Saturday's protests, and strikes kept national newspapers off the shelves, but overall disruption was minimal with trains running normally.

In southeastern Avignon, workers angry at the closure of an historic paper mill by US group Schweitzer-Mauduit led a march of around 1,000 people, while 500 marched in the port of Toulon.

Unions said 13,000 people had joined large marches in southwestern Toulouse and Bordeaux, including workers protesting at the closure of car parts supplier Molex, but police put the figure much lower at around 3,500.

Across western France, unions said up to 6,500 people in total marched in Rennes, Brest, Poitiers and Le Mans where unions said Renault factory workers joined the rally. Police put the figure lower at around 3,500.

Workers angry at job cuts in a local glassworks headed up a march of 700 people in northern Reims, while up to 2,000 took part in half a dozen rallies in eastern France, from the mustard capital Dijon to Colmar, unions said.

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