PARIS - In the biggest demonstrations seen in France for more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets yesterday to protest against everything from the global economic crisis to President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to shrink the French state.
About 300,000 people - mostly representing the many tribes of a rejuvenated left-wing movement - marched raucously through the centre of Paris to demand higher wages, more job protection and greater government efforts to stop the country from tipping into a deep recession.
In a carnival atmosphere - one of political defiance, rather than deep popular anger - the trades union and left-wing sympathisers marched to a chanted refrain, in English, of "Yes, yes, yes, we can". This must be the first time that any left-wing French demonstration has invoked the absent spirit of an American president.
A 24-hour nationwide strike, mostly observed by public sector employees, was less effective than predicted but rail and bus services, airports, schools and postal services were disrupted, especially outside Paris.
More worryingly for M. Sarkozy, a poll found that 69 per cent of voters supported the protests - a figure which embraced not just the traditional left and centre, but a large number of right-wing respondents. The President may be further disturbed by the fact that yesterday's demonstrations were held before the recession has begun to bite savagely into the real economy. With France's manufacturing and luxury industries - from cars and aircraft to wine and leather goods - beginning to feel the squeeze, far deeper and angrier unrest may lie ahead.
About 1.5 million people in a dozen cities were said to have joined the rallies, which were called by the eight rival trade union federations. Union leaders said it was the largest social protest since a wave of demonstrations forced President Jacques Chirac to back down on state reforms in 1995.
The marches were the most powerful challenge so far to M. Sarkozy's authority. Police estimated the number of demonstrators in Paris at 65,000 but this was manifestly too low. A dense crowd more than a mile long blocked the Grands Boulevards in the east of the city centre, from the Bastille to La République and beyond, suggesting a turnout of at least 300,000.
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The placards carried by marchers were anti-recession, anti-banker, anti-capitalist and anti-reform but most of all, anti-Sarkozy. The parade was led by people carrying an effigy of the President as a green-skinned vampire, with the slogan "Black Death" pinned on his back. Alongside him was an effigy of a donkey in a dunce's cap with the slogan "€36bn for the bankers and we get screwed". The protests, following similar unrest in Greece, the Baltic states and even Iceland, will be closely followed by other European governments. EU leaders have been concerned for weeks that popular anxiety about the recession - and anger and incomprehension at the scale of the banking bailouts - might spill over on to the streets.
Yesterday's rallies across France were mostly good-natured and almost jubilant. The left was delighted to find a unifying issue after 20 months of being outmanoeuvred and humiliated by M. Sarkozy. Leading figures in the Socialist and Communist parties ostentatiously joined the Paris march. The danger for M. Sarkozy, however, is that he so weakened the credibility of the moderate left that social protest will jump to the extremes. Yesterday's march was dotted with crude anti-capitalist images such as bankers in top hats, lighting cigars with €500 notes.
President Sarkozy has already unveiled a €26bn package to boost the economy, as well as special measures to shore up flagging sales of cars and aircraft. But even the most moderate union leaders say more must be done to boost people's declining incomes (something M. Sarkozy repeatedly promised voters in 2007).
Bernard Thibault, the head of the largest union federation, the CGT, said the marches were a "social event of the utmost importance, not just a passing shout of anger". He urged M. Sarkozy and his Prime Minister François Fillon to "re-examine their consciences" and reconsider the scale of their stimulus package. François Chérèque, of the moderate CFDT federation, called for "concrete measures for workers" - in other words pay rises.
M. Sarkozy remained deliberately and obstinately silent yesterday. Last year, he boasted that he had tamed the unions and that "when there is a strike in France, no one notices any more". It appears that he spoke too soon. He may take comfort from the fact that yesterday's strike was mostly observed by public-sector workers whose jobs are not directly threatened by recession. And he will note that the strikes were not as damaging as the unions had forecast: seven in 10 trains ran on the Paris Métro, while six in 10 high-speed TGV trains were operating normally.