PARIS (Reuters) - France’s Socialist party called a no confidence motion against the government’s economic policies on Tuesday, looking to pile pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of a national strike later this week.
It was only the second such vote since Sarkozy took power in 2007, and although his parliamentary allies easily defeated the motion, the debate enabled the opposition to shine a spotlight on the government’s record at a time of economic slowdown.
Unions will pick up the baton on Thursday with nationwide protests likely to bring hundreds of thousands of strikers onto the streets to demand more action to protect jobs and wages.
“Do you hear the anger that’s growing in the country? It will be there for everyone to see on Thursday,” said Socialist parliamentary party leader Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Sarkozy last year unveiled a 26-billion-euro (24 billion pound) stimulus plan that focussed heavily on encouraging investment. Unions and Socialists say not enough is being done to help the consumer and warn of a backlash if more aid is not provided.
Ayrault said France should copy U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans for massive tax cuts to boost consumer spending. “Sooner or later ... you will have to present a second stimulus plan,” he told stony-faced government ranks.
Ministers are clearly concerned about the possibility of social unrest in a country where street protests have regularly built unstoppable momentum, forcing governments into retreat.
Earlier this month, unions staged a wildcat strike at a major Paris commuter station, closing it for most of the day and sending social tensions spiralling higher.
Although France does not face the sort of banking woes that have hobbled countries such as Britain and Ireland, its unemployment rate rose steadily in the second half of 2008, hitting 2.07 million in November, up 8.5 percent on the year.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon dismissed Socialist calls to try to inflate consumer spending and accused the left of trying to paper over its own divisions by attacking the government.
“The policies you suggest are outdated ... your desire for ideological revenge blasts away all economic reason,” he said.
Sarkozy riled the left last July when he said “these days, when there is a strike, nobody notices,” but soon afterwards the economy hit turbulence tied to the financial meltdown and labour relations deteriorated.
His ministers are being less provocative ahead of Thursday’s strike, which has the backing of France’s eight main unions and the support of 69 percent of voters, according to opinion polls.
“I’m not shocked that there are going to be rallies. Why is that a surprise? We are in a very difficult situation,” said Labour Minister Brice Hortefeux.
Public transport strikes have been called in 77 French cities on Thursday, including Paris, with stoppages also expected to hit air travel, banks, hospitals, schools, power companies and the legal system.
“Those who think there is no longer a union movement here are going to see that isn’t the case,” said Bernard Thibault, head of the powerful CGT union.