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France strikes as workers vent anger

A NEW wave of nationwide strikes hit France yesterday as angry workers demanded that President Nicolas Sarkozy open new talks on the government's policies to fight the economic crisis.

By midday, tens of thousands of protesters were marching in the streets of Marseille and Lyon, both of which have been hit hard by the world economic downturn. More than 200 protest marches are planned around the country, the biggest of which is expected in Paris.

"The government must accept to discuss again with the unions," said Bernard Thibaut, head of the CGT, one of France's main unions.

Although Sarkozy's approval ratings are down, he is under far less political pressure than some of his European counterparts and has a comfortable majority in parliament.

Strikes yesterday and in January have not seriously disrupted the economy or ignited serious social protests, as massive strikes did in the mid-1990s.

Rail traffic was disrupted throughout France yesterday, although the high speed TGV trains that connect France with other European countries ran on time. About one-third of medium-haul flights were affected at Orly, Paris's second airport, but all long-haul flights were on time.

In Paris, subways were less crowded as people stayed home. Schools, hospitals, the postal service and public transport were affected. About one-third of the country's teachers did not go to school, and many workers and letter carriers did not report for work.

French commuters said they did not expect much to change due to the protests.

"The strike won't accomplish much, but is useful nonetheless. It's necessary to express yourself, in any case," said Beatrice Lobrot, a spokesman for a cosmetics company.

Jean Batis, a music producer, said, "It's always the same game. They give a little bit, we strike, they give a little bit, we strike."

Sarkozy told ministers at a meeting on Wednesday that he "understood the worries of the French," but had no plans for additional measures.


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