French Take to the StreetsElitsa Vucheva
In a record turnout, as many as three million people hit the streets in France on Thursday (19 March) to protest against the government's economic policies in response to the global crisis, according to union estimates. The numbers were closer to 1.2 million, say the police.
The country's airports, trains, schools and public transport were disrupted by the mass demonstration – the second general strike faced by France in two months.
The event mobilised more people than the similar one in January when between one and two million people protested in France's cities.
The country's eight main trade unions, who had called for the protests, demanded that the government react.
"I cannot believe the government will stay immobile in the face of a phenomenon of this size," Bernard Thibault of the General Labour Confederation said on state television France 2.
"If things continue like this, the marches will get bigger," Bernard van Craeynest, the leader of trade union CFE-CGC, was reported as saying by Le Monde.
Representatives of the opposition were also participating in the protests.
"It is important that the government changes its economic, social and fiscal policy," Paris' Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë said.
For his part, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon defended his government's actions and ruled out any new economic recovery plan in France at this stage, saying it should first be clear what the effects of the €26 billion plan announced in December are.
"Mobilisation [in the streets] will not solve the problems of the world crisis," Mr Fillon said.
The French protests come as unemployment reached eight percent in the country, and new figures published on Friday by the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) say the number of jobless people will reach 8.8 percent by the end of the first half of 2009.
The institute also forecasts a "prolongation of the recession" in the first half of this year in France, saying GDP will shrink by up to 1.5 percent in the first quarter alone – its worst drop since 1975.
Meanwhile, strikes have been taking place in other EU countries as well, including Italy. A major demonstration is also to be organised by unions, NGOs and charities on 28 March in London, ahead of the G20 meeting on 2 April, to call on global leaders to "put people first," Le Figaro reports.
EU premiers and presidents, gathered for a two-day summit ending on Friday in Brussels, are expected to declare in a final document that the "rapid increase of unemployment is central to our concerns."
The Czech Republic, currently at the helm of the EU's six-month rotating presidency, has also called a social affairs summit in Prague on 7 May, aiming to tackle the social consequences of the economic crisis.
On Thursday, John Monks, secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation's (ETUC), called on the EU to be "ambitious" and adopt "a new social deal" at this summit.