Protests held across France in opposition to government €11bn austerity plans

 

TENS OF thousands joined protest marches across France yesterday to denounce government austerity plans.

In the first wave of public demonstrations since a controversial pension reform was enacted last year, trade unions organised about 200 events yesterday, though turnout was much lower than last year. Some 25,000 people marched in Paris, the unions said, though police put the figure at 16,000.

Unions have criticised the decision by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to make €11 billion in savings next year, saying the steps this requires are “unfair and inequitable” and will jeopardise jobs.

On the march to Place de la Bastille in Paris, Francis Magnon, a postal worker, said there was a need to stress alternatives to the austerity measures being pursued across Europe.

“We need to rejuvenate our economies and bring big finance under control,” he said. “We want to see another way of distributing wealth. Yes, it’s important to bring down the debt, but we need a fairer tax system, more solidarity.”

Mr Sarkozy’s plan, with which he hopes to protect France’s triple-A credit rating, will involve raising an extra €10 billion in 2012 and cutting €1 billion from spending. The government plans to scrap a host of tax exemptions and impose an additional 3 per cent tax on people with incomes of more than €500,000 a year.

It also intends to raise taxes on tobacco, strong alcohol and fizzy drinks.

“The markets are reassured. What about us?” proclaimed one poster at the Paris rally – a raucous, colourful event that brought some disruption to public transport in the capital for a few hours.

“Once again, the austerity plan favours the richest and penalises the poorest,” said Karima Bouache (27), a trainee teacher carrying a placard that read: ‘Capitalism is dead. Change the system.’

“I’m also here to say ‘let’s stop capitalism’, which in my opinion is well and truly dead,” Ms Bouache said. “They say to us that there’s no alternative to austerity. Why not say the same thing to the banks, for whom they can find hundreds of billions just like that? They find solutions for the richest, but not for us.”

Outside the Paris stock exchange, members of the CFDT union stacked up cardboard boxes painted gold and labelled “€100 million” as Pink Floyd’s song Moneyblared from a loudspeaker.

The opposition Socialist Party gave its support to yesterday’s protests, but just two of France’s main transport unions called strikes, so disruption was limited.

Three TGVs out of four ran as normal, while two out of three regional trains continued to operate. The education ministry said a call from some unions for teachers to strike led to minor disruption.

France’s trade unions are still smarting from their defeat against the government in late 2010, when they failed to force Mr Sarkozy to abandon his plan to raise the retirement age by two years to 62 years, leaving them looking weakened.

Some unions decided to sit out Tuesday’s protests. “Given what happened last year on pensions, we decided that a day like today will not really change things, so we abstained from it,” Force Ouvrière head Jean-Claude Mailly said.