Sarkozy under fire after mass strike

Opposition leaders piled pressure on French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday to boost low wages and cap executive bonuses after more than a million striking workers marched in anger at the government.

Factory and white collar workers from across the private sector joined a million civil servants on Thursday in France’s second nationwide strike in two months to demand protection from the economic crisis.

Unions and the left-wing opposition, backed by up to four-fifths of the public, are clamouring for measures to lift wages, boost consumer spending, and scrap an unpopular tax break for the highest earners.

Sarkozy’s government on Thursday ruled out any hike to the minimum wage or new social spending to cushion the blow of the crisis, saying previous stimulus measures had yet to show their full effect.

But Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the FO union, told RTL radio that labour leaders were “determined to keep up the pressure” and were considering calling new protests on Labour Day on May 1.

Union leaders were to meet later on Friday to decide on further action.

“The French are worried, layoffs are on the rise, yet the government refuses to listen,” Socialist party leader Martine Aubry charged on France Inter radio.

“We need to keep up the pressure,” said fellow Socialist Segolene Royal.

“This government is cut off from the people,” she told France Info radio. “The anger we saw on the streets can only grow, faced with a government and president who remain deaf and blind to the country’s demands.”

Prime Minister Francois Fillon went on television late on Thursday to say he had heard the protesters “legitimate concerns,” but firmly ruled out new social measures.

Sarkozy agreed to a package of social benefits worth €2,6-billion after a first nationwide strike in January, in addition to a €26-billion stimulus plan focused on infrastructure investment.

Public anger is mounting as France feels the bite of a recession set to last well into 2010, with unemployment already above two million and 350 000 more layoffs expected this year.

While ruling out new social spending or tax hikes, Sarkozy’s governnent has sought to deflect public anger by backing calls for caps on executive bonuses.

Fillon warned on Thursday the government would legislate to outlaw bonuses at firms that receive state aid unless the employers’ federation MEDEF takes steps to do so by March 31.

“Some of our big bosses do not appear to grasp the seriousness of the situation, and the sense of injustice,” Fillon said.

“No one should be made a scapegoat, but no one should be spared from making an effort” in times of crisis, Labour Minister Brice Hortefeux warned on Friday.

Government spokesperson Luc Chatel also hit out at Societe Generale bank, saying a decision revealed on Friday to hand out a major package of stock options to top executives was “indecent”.

“In the current climate, all economic players have to send out constructive messages,” Chatel said.

Unions said three million people took part in about 200 protests across the country on Thursday, while police put the number at 1,2-million.

Riot police clashed with stone-throwing youths at the end of the Paris march, with similar incidents breaking out in southwestern Toulouse, but elsewhere the one-day strike was peaceful. — AFP

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