- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

PARIS | France’s workers, never known to shrink from the barricades, are meeting the global economic crisis with strikes and protests.

Dockworkers at the English channel port of Le Havre, which processes nearly two-thirds of French cargo, recently cut the number of vessels loading and unloading there by half. A one-day strike earlier last month at Electricite de France SA, Europe’s biggest electricity generator, plunged parts of the City of Light into darkness as production cuts occurred at two of the provider’s nuclear reactors.

But these instances are more or less par for the course in France, a nation where union members heed the call to strike as a useful negotiating tool. In the past month, however, as France’s jobless rate climbed to 8.6 percent, the country’s penchant for mass action has taken on an undercurrent that some see as worrying and potentially explosive.

In mid-April, workers at a factory run by German auto-parts maker Continental AG north of Paris looted the company’s offices when it was announced that the facility would be shutting down in the coming year.

A series of “boss-nappings” also continued unabated. Workers at the factory of the American company Molex, which once employed 238 people near the southern city of Toulouse and is slated to be closed this year, detained two managers for more than 24 hours before releasing them unharmed. Similar incidents had occurred at the French plants of 3M, Caterpillar Inc. and Hewlett-Packard.

Some analysts fear the economic malaise is becoming widespread.

“The carmakers were very badly hit by the crisis, and now it’s creeping out toward the rest of the economy,” said Florin Aftalion, a finance professor at the Ecole Superieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales, one of France’s most prestigious business schools.

The country’s unemployment level remains above average in the European Union, although the French government predicts the economy to contract by 2.5 percent this year, less than the British, Italian or German economies. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projected that the economy will shrink by 3.3 percent in France, 3.5 percent in Britain, 4.4 percent in Italy and 6 percent in Germany.

The once-high approval ratings of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, buoyed until recently by the disorganization and infighting of the country’s Socialist opposition, have plummeted. Numbers from French pollsters TNS Sofres showed the president’s approval rating slipping to 36 percent in April, two points lower than in March.

Set to benefit are such far-left political currents as the New Anticapitalist Party, or NPA, cobbled together in February out of smaller parties. The coalition is led by a charismatic postal carrier named Olivier Besancenot, whose route cuts through the same Neuilly-sur-Seine suburb of Paris where Mr. Sarkozy got his political start, and whose political leanings have led him to be dubbed “the Red Postman.”

At the NPA’s headquarters in the working-class Paris district of Bagnolet, printers churn out old-style leaflets hailing what the party calls “socialism for the 21st century,” and a party manifesto that claims “capitalism puts humanity and the planet in danger.”

“This is not simply a financial or banking crisis; it is a crisis of capitalism, of civilization,” said NPA spokesman Pierre-Francois Grond. “We need another mode for society to function that will rupture with this system.”

The first test of the NPA’s strength likely will be elections for the European Parliament in June, when France is set to choose 72 representatives. They may get some help from the traditional left and the business class.

The General Confederation of Labor, one of France’s largest unions, has been at the forefront of demands for a 5 percent salary increase for workers in addition to a one-time payment of $1,995 for every one of France’s 155,000 power and gas workers.

It was among a coalition of unions that succeeded in March in flooding the streets of French cities with more than 1 million protesters calling for an end to layoffs in the public sector and an increase in the minimum wage.

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