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France braces for nationwide strikes, protests

FRANCE braced for a huge protest march in Paris and a day of nationwide strikes today aimed at pressing the government to support workers better during the economic crisis.

Paris police laid out two routes through the capital, rather than one, for the expected crowds. Unions called on employees in the public and private sectors to join in the strikes.

Schools, hospitals, the postal service and public transport were among the services expected to be hit. But Paris transport authorities said they expected buses and Metro lines to be mostly spared, even if suburban trains are not.

Workers with the SNCF train authority began their strike at 8 pm (1900 GMT) yesterday. The SNCF predicts major disruptions for fast trains as well as suburban Paris traffic, but transport woes were expected to take hold gradually overnight.

In a rare move, police announced a decision to split up the marchers heading from the Place de la Republique, where the protest is scheduled to start at 2 pm (1300 GMT), to Place de la Nation in eastern Paris. The second route provides room for an overflow crowd of up to 100,000 people.

In February, after a late-January strike put between 1 million and 2.5 million people into French streets, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced measures to help people affected by the financial crisis, including special bonuses for the needy.

Sarkozy told ministers at a Cabinet meeting yesterday that he "understood the worries of the French," but said he had no plans to go beyond has already been announced.

Budget Minister Eric Woerth said those measures will increase social expenditures in 2009 by nearly €10 billion (about US$13 billion).

Some 200 protest marches are planned Thursday around France, according to the powerful CGT union, which has members in various sectors of the economy.


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