FRENCH unions kicked off a national strike on Thursday to press the government to boost the minimum wage, increase taxes on the rich and scrap plans to cut public-sector jobs.
At least one million people flooded the streets of central Paris and hundreds of thousands took part in some 200 demonstrations in other towns and cities across the country.
[Unions estimated that more than three million people took part in demonstrations - Guardian.co.uk]
Paris police laid out two routes through the capital for the huge crowds of oil, car, banking, pharmaceutical and retail workers who marched shoulder to shoulder with public-sector employees.
Rail traffic was disrupted and schools, hospitals, the postal service and public transport were also affected, but a law pushed through by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in August 2007 that requires "minimum service" to be guaranteed has limited the impact of the industrial action.
Adding to the social tension, many French universities have been paralysed for weeks due to a strike by lecturers, professors and students against a government assault on the higher education budget.
French unemployment has recently surged past 8 per cent, with more than two million people out of work and another 350,000 set to lose their jobs this year as the market meltdown destroys thousands of jobs in heavy industry and the car sector.
Car industry supplier Rencast, an aluminium founder that employs 850 people in south-eastern France, was officially declared bankrupt on Wednesday, while the tyre manufacturer Goodyear announced plans to slash up to 1,000 jobs.
Unions are calling for an immediate halt to the mass job cuts.
And they are demanding that Mr Sarkozy's right-wing government scrap a 50 per cent cap on income tax.
At least 78 per cent of the population supports the unions' demands, according to a French poll published in the French financial daily Les Echos on Tuesday.
Mr Sarkozy told ministers at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that he "understood the worries of the French." But in the same breath he claimed that increasing taxes on the rich would only drive them abroad.
Weeks after a strike in late-January saw around 2.5 million people take to the streets, Mr Sarkozy announced measures to help people affected by the financial crisis, including special bonuses for the needy.
But union leaders point out that state support for working people has been dwarfed by the hundreds of billions of euros that Paris has doled out to banking bosses.
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