PARIS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of French workers demonstrated against government plans to reform pensions and the 35-hour work week on Tuesday but the biggest labour union said turnout was lower than it had hoped.
The relatively low participation, by French standards, could encourage President Nicolas Sarkozy to press on with his reforms despite several months of protests over a range of issues.
An opinion poll by the BVA institute showed Sarkozy’s approval ratings, which have stabilised recently after a sharp dive this year, rose slightly to 36 percent but there was plenty of anger on the streets.
“I’m here to make Sarkozy cave in,” said Alex Boulet, a railway worker waving a union flag in Paris, where police said 18,000 people marched. Unions said there were 55,000 marchers.
The CGT and CFDT unions had called for protests in more than 120 towns and cities against plans to extend the number of years employees must work to get a full pension to 41 from 40, and to give companies more scope to by-pass the 35-hour week.
But division in the union movement weakened the impact of the protests and CGT, which had set a target of over a million demonstrators nationwide, said it estimated turnout was 500,000. The government said four percent of France’s 5 million public servants had gone on strike.
Bernard Thibault, the head of CGT, vowed to resume the fight when workers returned refreshed from their summer breaks.
“We are rapidly going to launch new initiatives to keep up the pressure on legislators (to vote against the reforms) and of course start getting organised for a heated September,” he said.
Low participation was perhaps due to fatigue after months of strikes by teachers over job cuts, port workers over reforms, fishermen and truckers over fuel prices and other protests.
Pollsters also say the appetite for strikes could be diminishing because there is little hope of forcing the centre-right government to change course.
Welfare Minister Xavier Bertrand is due to present a bill to the cabinet on Wednesday reforming the 35-hour week, introduced 10 years ago when the Socialists were in power.
“The 35 hours have been a brake on our economy, the 35 hours have prevented the salaries of French workers from rising,” Bertrand told legislators on Tuesday during question time.
“We have found a just and fair solution to meet the expectations of both companies and employees,” he said.
His proposal would open the way for negotiations at company rather than industry level on maximum numbers of overtime hours.
Unions say this would give greater power to bosses, who tend to be stronger in negotiations within individual companies than at industry level where they face the full weight of the unions.
Many demonstrators were angry that Bertrand’s bill went much further than measures agreed by CGT, CFDT and the employers’ group MEDEF in April after arduous discussions.
“The government says it wants negotiated agreements on social issues but for once we had one and they ignored it,” said Anne-Marie Gerat, a railway worker at the Paris march.
In an unusual convergence of views, the MEDEF also said the government should have been more faithful to the agreement.
“We would have preferred a different method to move things along ... (but) we consider that the government’s proposal is good for companies,” MEDEF head Laurence Parisot told reporters.
Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille, Gerard Bon and Veronique Tison in Paris, Editing by Janet Lawrence