French Strikers Seek Job Security France shut down Thursday as the country experienced a general strike. The action, called by eight of the country's biggest trade unions, is intended to protest the effects of the global recession, and to demand that the government make protecting employment its top priority.
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French Strikers Seek Job Security

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French Strikers Seek Job Security

French Strikers Seek Job Security

French Strikers Seek Job Security

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France shut down Thursday as the country experienced a general strike. The action, called by eight of the country's biggest trade unions, is intended to protest the effects of the global recession, and to demand that the government make protecting employment its top priority.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

In France, as in the United States, thousands of people have lost their jobs amid a global economic downturn. But unlike here in the U.S., hundreds of thousands of French workers have staged a national protest. They demonstrated today in cities across France protesting against the government's handling of the financial crisis. The workers said the crisis is not their fault and they should not be the ones to pay the price. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRIKERS SHOUTING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Today's general strike was a warning shot at President Nicholas Sarkozy. The eight major French unions held their biggest strike in 10 years to tell Sarkozy to temper his reforms and to change the course of his bailout plan. In Paris, tens of thousands of train drivers, hospital workers, teachers, mailmen, and regular citizens amassed in Paris's Place de la Bastille to begin their all day march through the streets of the city. Teacher Nadia Busharas(ph) says the message is clear. French workers are not about to pay for the financial crisis with their jobs or their rights.

NADIA BUSHARAS: I'm here because it's important for all the French to say that we are not in America. You know, France it's - we have a lot of rights and we need them.

BEARDSLEY: One of the protesters is Mamud Ahmili(ph) who usually drives a train on the Paris Metro. His seven-year-old daughter holds up a sign from her seat on the back of his bicycle. "My father supports the workers," it says. The union's main demand is job protection. Ahmili says there's no point in governments giving financial help to companies that lay off their workers.

MAMUD AHMILI: (Through Translator) When you see that the French, Spanish, and other governments are investing millions in companies like Airbus and carmakers Renault and Peugeot that are doing nothing for workers, it's scandalous. A government's first job should be to protect workers and jobs.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has proposed a $34 billion stimulus package that aims to encourage investment and protect major industries. But union leaders say it doesn't do enough to save jobs and help consumers.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRIKERS SHOUTING)

BEARDSLEY: Chanting "Workers shouldn't have to pay for the folly of bankers," Retired steelworker Albert Michel(ph) expresses another common sentiment here.

ALBERT MICHEL: (Through Translator) This isn't a crisis about France or its workers. It's the capitalists who got us into this situation. We're not responsible, and we just want to keep our rights and keep working.

BEARDSLEY: Michel and other strikers say they are also fighting to keep their retirement benefits in a government-managed pay-as-you-go system where the current workforce supports retirees. No one here wants to lose their retirement gambling on the stock market, he says. While millions of commuters may have been inconvenienced by the strike today, a poll showed that two out of three French people support the strikers' demands. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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Amid European Tensions, French Workers Strike

The global financial crisis is moving from Europe's boardrooms and stock exchanges to the main streets of Reykjavik and Paris, as violent protests and labor unrest offer a stark warning to leaders gathered at the annual World Economic Summit in Switzerland.

Hundreds of thousands of French workers, angered by Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy's handling of the country's economic downturn, failed to show up at their jobs on Thursday. The strike disrupted nearly every aspect of everyday life, from train and air service to schools, banks and the mail.

Events in France only added urgency to the summit in Davos, Switzerland, where leaders met to discuss ways out of the crisis.

In the French capital, Metro service was shut down, forcing many workers to walk or bicycle to work in freezing temperatures. A recent law mandating minimal subway service kept some trains running, and they carried capacity loads of commuters.

Some workers at factories hit by layoffs also joined the strike. Hospital staff also stayed off the job.

The strike involved eight major unions. More have threatened work stoppages in coming weeks if the Sarkozy government fails to take more action to protect jobs and wages.

So far, Sarkozy has said nothing about the strike, which has been dubbed "Black Thursday" by the French press. His government recently announced a $33 billion stimulus plan, but the unions say it's not enough.

Sarkozy's government is concerned that a growing strike could be transformed into a wider social protest movement, such as one that inflamed French suburbs in 2007. Signs of civil unrest have been evident in recent weeks in Latvia, Lithuania, Greece and Iceland.

In the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, street protests have forced out Prime Minister Geir Haarde, who tendered his resignation Monday amid the country's growing financial and credit crisis. Haarde will step down Saturday.

But even that did not satisfy protesters, who on Wednesday picketed outside a NATO meeting in Reykjavik where Haarde was speaking. Police used pepper spray and arrested six protesters.

The global financial crisis hit Iceland in October, ending a decade of rising prosperity and triggering a collapse in the currency and financial system. Earlier, the country's central bank said the jobless rate in the nation of 320,000 was likely to rise to 11 percent in the first quarter of 2010.

At the Davos summit, meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton said if President Obama gets support from Congress, his economic stimulus package could show results in a year to 15 months.

Clinton said asset deflation must be stopped.

"Right now the house is on fire and we need to put it out as quickly as we can," he said. "The quickest way to do it is to stop the deflation in asset prices and do it in a way that allows the financial system — that did bring us a lot of growth the last 20 years — to kick back in."