PARIS (AFP) – More than a million French workers took to the streets Thursday to voice anger and fear of job losses during a one-day strike over President Nicolas Sarkozy's handling of the economic crisis.
Billed as a "Black Thursday," the nationwide day of action caused less transport disruption than expected but the strike was well supported, with a quarter of France's five million public sector workers downing tools.
The demonstrations were the biggest since the right-wing president arrived in office in May 2007, and came amid mounting public anger at his policies, in particular his plans to cut public sector jobs.
Marchers thronged the boulevards of eastern Paris -- 300,000 according to the organisers, 65,000 according to police, but over 1 million as part of the strike -- to demand protection for jobs threatened by the global slowdown.
"It's not up to workers to pay for the bankers," read one banner. "The bosses caused the crisis, let them pay for it!" said another, while a third declared: "Hands off our public services!"
Protesters marched peacefully from the Place de la Bastille in the east of the city to the Place de l'Opera in the west, where skirmishes erupted between dozens of bottle-throwing youths and police in riot gear.
Officers repeatedly baton-charged a group of young men who tried to peel away from the demonstration and march towards Sarkozy's official residence, the Elysee Palace, burning dustbins and smashing street furniture.
The demonstrators were tear-gassed and pushed back into streets lined with cinemas and restaurants, where they attempted to set up a road-block of burning bins and overturned at least one car and set it alight.
There were no reports of serious injuries, but several arrests were made.
Fearing for their jobs in a crisis they blame on bankers and free market failures, French workers are demanding state action against lay-offs, a boost to low wages and an end to public sector cutbacks.
The CGT trade union claimed that the demonstrations had attracted more than two-and-a-half million protesters in towns and cities across France, while the interior ministry estimated the total number at 1.08 million.
"Sarkozy is handing out big cheques to business, but he's doing nothing for the workers," said Mickael Sechet, a 33-year-old factory foreman marching in the Breton city of Rennes.
"We've had a revolution in France before. If we need to, we'll have one again," he warned. "Given the number of people in the street, he's going to have to start listening before things get nasty."
Opposition leader Martine Aubry, whose Socialist Party is seeking to harness mounting anger at Sarkozy's policies, cheered on the Paris demo.
"Today, we have a president who is pushing blindly ahead even after he took us into recession through his policies even before the financial crisis began," she told television cameras.
Sarkozy, while he showed no sign of bending on the content of his programme, admitted that workers were right to be worried about the crisis and promised to meet union leaders next month to discuss a timetable for reform.
"This crisis of an unprecedented scale which is affecting the global economy has provoked in France, as it has elsewhere in the world, legitimate concern," the president said, in a statement.
"This crisis imposes on the public authorities a duty to listen and to talk, but also a great determination to act," he added.
Polls show public support for the protests is high and officials said around a third of teachers, telecoms and electricity workers, a quarter of postal workers and 15 percent of air traffic controllers were on strike.
Sarkozy came to power in May 2007 promising to raise living standards and kickstart growth, but France only narrowly avoided recession last year, and the economy is expected to contract in 2009 for the first time since 1993.
The following video was uploaded to YouTube Jan. 29 by a protester at the Paris strikes:
The following report was published Jan. 29 by China's CCTV.