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French Strikers Seek Job Security

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.