Around one million civil servants were joined by two million members of the public across France in more than 200 protest marches, officials said.

The second such protest in under two months was directed at the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and the latest sign of social unrest due to the global economic downturn.

A similar day of action at the end of January saw an estimated 2.5 million people involved.

Wages and protection

With the cost of living rising, strikers called for higher wages, better methods for protecting employment and higher taxes for high earners.

In pictures

French workers on strike

 

"The crisis is not the fault of the workers," one banner read at the biggest rally in Paris, where 85,000 people marched through the city, according to police.

Public transport and schools, hospitals and the postal service were affected by the strikes, which were supported by around 75 per cent of the population, according to opinion polls.

About one third of schoolteachers took part in the strike on Thursday, along with a quarter of employees at France Telecom and one in five postal workers, officials said.

Private sector workers also participated in the protests, including employees of Air France and oil company Total.

In Clairoix, a town in France's north, about 10,000 people protested over the closure of a Continental tyre plant, which has meant a loss of 1,120 jobs.

Al Jazeera's Estelle Youssouffa, reporting from Paris, said Sarkozy had already explained that he could not do much for the workers as the government's coffers were empty.

No more measures

The French president had already said that nothing more could be done beyond previously announced measures including a $34bn stimulus plan, but many are complaining that the package will not benefit them, our correspondent said.

Sarkozy has said he will not back down in the face of protests [AFP]
Agnes Poirier, a French political commentator, told Al Jazeera that people are "very disillusioned" with Sarkozy's government.

"Every single corporation in France has a motive, a reason to demonstrate today. The French in their majority are protesting against a string of what they considered as ill-advised and rushed reforms that President Sarkozy wants to implement," she said.

She added that despite the majority of the population supporting the demonstrations, Sarkozy was unlikely to back down.

"The government is very cautious because it knows that there is popular support for these demonstrations, and yet Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday that he wouldn't back off and he would actually press on with his reforms," she said.

Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvriere Union, told the Reuters news agency that "the government will find it hard to ignore us".

"A very strong sense of injustice is building up," he said.

The government has already introduced a $34bn stimulus plan aimed at business investment, and after the January 29 strike Sarkozy offered more money to help vulnerable households weather the crisis.

But ministers say there will be no more concessions, explaining that the previous measures had not yet taken effect and warning that the heavily-indebted nation could not afford more handouts.

Underscoring the tensions, workers at a tyre factory in northern France recently pelted managers with eggs after they were told it was closing and, last week, staff at a Sony plant locked up their bosses for a night to demand better redundancy cover.

With its large public sector and welfare system, France is better placed than many to ride out the economic storm, but it is still being affected, with some analysts predicting the economy will contract by two per cent this year and unemployment jump to almost 10 per cent.