French crowds join general strike on 'Black Thursday'
Hundreds of thousands of people took part in a general strike in France on Thursday in protest at the government's handling of the economic crisis.
Union leaders said 2.5 million people had taken part in protests across the country - dubbed "Black Thursday" - while the French interior ministry put the figure at 1 million.
These were the biggest protests to hit France since President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007.
On Thursday evening, President Sarkozy's office announced plans to meet union leaders in February to discuss a program for reforms in 2009.
"Black Thursday" was hailed by union leaders as the country's "biggest workers' protest in 20 years" after marchers in cities across France voiced their anger at the government's response to their economic plight and members of eight unions joined in the industrial action.
While the effectiveness of the action was called into question when the transport network suffered less disruption than had been expected, labour leaders claimed that up to 2.5 million people had joined in the protests, with at least 300,000 on the streets in the capital.
Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union, said: "We have not seen action on this scale for two decades. It is a cry of anger."
Unlike previous strikes which had effectively shut down transport in Paris, a new law requiring a minimum service appears to have kept commuters on the move.
Workers, mostly government employees, walked off their jobs throughout the country - snarling transportation, closing public offices and schools, and forcing airports to reduce flights. Government estimates suggested that from one-quarter to one-third of public sector workers had joined the protest. Employees of some large international companies joined in, even employees of the bourse operator NYSE-Euronext.
Like many other nations, France finds itself in a difficult economic position:
Economic growth in 2009 is expected to be close to zero in France, with unemployment — now at 7.7 percent — below the double-digit figures of 10 years ago but rising at the fastest rate in 15 years.
Consumer spending has plunged.
Sarkozy recently announced a euro26 billion ($33 billion) stimulus plan, but the unions believe it is not enough.