May 15 was a sunny, breezy day in Paris. About 10,000 protesters marched along the narrow streets of the 7th arrondissement towards Invalides Avenue, accompanied by loud music, giant balloons and hundreds of flags bearing unions' logos.
Yet, although the demonstration was festive, the mood among French civil servants remains gloomy.
"We can't live any more. We have to go and work double shifts in the private sector to make ends meet. People are suffering. There are nurses who live with 1,400 euros ($1,920) a month," said Patricia Moreau, a 40-year-old nurse. "The situation is catastrophic in our hospitals. There is not enough staff, there is no budget, no equipment for our services."
Like Patricia, tens of thousands of civil servants - including nurses, teachers, firefighters, policemen, customs officers and educators - demonstrated nationwide on Thursday to ask for a pay raise and higher government spending on public services. The mass rallies and strikes were organised by seven major unions across the country.
"Enough with these policies!" said Thitrinh Lescure, a general delegate of the union Solidarite. "Civil servants have been very polite over the past five years. Today, we say it's enough - it's not up to us to pay the price of the economic crisis."
French civil servants' salaries have not been reassessed since July 2010. The freeze, which began under the right-wing government of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, is now part of the left-wing government's plan to cut public spending and boost economic growth.
|France aiming to cut spending
"This pay freeze is unacceptable, as is the government austerity policy. It is not working and it will never lead to growth. There is no guarantee," said Anas Khaneboubi, a 32-year-old high school economics teacher. "We're fed up with austerity. They're implementing [former US president Herbert] Hoover-like policies even though it's not working. They're just being stubborn."
According to the national statistics agency INSEE, the French economy stagnated in the first quarter of 2014, with zero growth between January and March. "It doesn't matter," said French Finance Minister Michel Sapin on Thursday. "The [growth] forecast by the IMF for France is one percent, so we're dealing with figures that are perfectly reasonable goals."
Sapin added that he was confident that the overall growth in 2014 would be "clearly above zero", although admitted it "will not be enough". With growth so weak and the unemployment rate and budget deficit so high, the government has no plans to increase the wages of civil servants in the near future.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that without any clear sign of growth, the pay freeze will continue until 2017. "The efforts required must be fair and equitably distributed among all the French," he said in a letter addressed to the unions on Tuesday.
The prime minister's plan
France is struggling to meet the three percent budget deficit goal set by the European Union. After the Socialist Party's defeat in municipal elections in March, Valls was appointed to reassess public spending. "I am obliged to tell the truth to the French people. Our public spending represents 57 percent of our national wealth. We can't live beyond our means," he said in April.
Valls has announced plans to save 50bn euros ($68.5bn) between 2015 and 2017, mainly by freezing wages, benefits and pensions at current levels and cutting taxes for businesses. His plan has angered France's far-left parties and unions as well as some of Valls' Socialist allies and voters, who see the measures as favouring businessmen over the people.
"They are implementing austerity plans that are more and more violent, which will lead to impoverished middle and lower middle classes. There cannot be growth in France without higher salaries and heavy investment in public services," said Raquel Garrido, spokesperson for the far-left party Front de Gauche. "By choosing to dock himself to the European austerity boat, [French President] Francois Hollande is sinking with the Titanic of European austerity."
The government's economic policies do have some supporters. Pierre Gattaz, the head of MEDEF - France's largest union of employers - has welcomed what he described as "the recognition of the importance of business, and voluntarism in cutting public spending - a key element for the recovery of our country - as well as the continuing reduction of labour costs".
Twenty-year-old Leo Anstett said Hollande and his government "have had to take [the economic crisis] into account, and incorporate it into their policy-making. Today we're slowly getting there, revitalising the economy. The fact that they are freezing wages and helping businesses, to boost the job market and stop unemployment, it's good."
Hollande: The least popular president
But these sentiments do not seem to be widely shared. Hollande's popularity has sunk to its lowest levels yet: With an approval rating of 18 percent, he is the most unpopular French president on record. "The French are very pessimistic about the economy. Only 28 percent are confident about economic perspectives. They have a very dark vision of their future," said Eric Bonnet, a pollster at BVA Institute. "As for Hollande, people voted for him hoping he'd do better than Nicolas Sarkozy and they have the feeling he's worse."
Over the past two years, Hollande has slowly lost the support of those who voted for him in 2012, not only because of his unfulfilled promises of economic growth and what they see as his centrism.
"The country has been in crisis for years and people are in a hurry to see things improve. Their reaction is understandable," said Corinne Narassiguin, spokesperson for the Socialist Party. "But we have stopped the fall. We have an economy that starts getting better. We are at a pivotal period, a transition period. For us, it's hard to explain that had we not taken these tough measures, the situation would be much worse."
But for most civil servants marching last Thursday in Paris and other French cities, the socialist president has betrayed them.
"I voted for him in 2012. But that's it. It's over," said Khaneboubi, the high school teacher. "I will never vote for the Socialist Party again. They're the right wing!"