As millions of French protesters took to the streets Thursday for a repeat of the nationwide strikes that slowed the country to a crawl on Jan. 29, there was the feeling that the mass social movement had become distinctly personal. More than ever before, marchers said they were not just denouncing the government's minimalist response to the worsening recession, but were singling out President Nicolas Sarkozy as the defiant embodiment of attention to ideological orthodoxy rather than the peoples' pain. As a result, public and political challenges to Sarkozy's leadership are growing including from members of his own conservative majority.
Over 200 demonstrations were organized across France on March 19, with early turnout suggesting participation would easily surpass the 2.5 million people who answered the Jan. 29 strike call. Beautiful weather helped swell the ranks of corteges marching throughout the day to protest the modesty of Sarkozy's stimulus package especially compared to the mighty bail-out effort accorded to the banks and financial groups who detonated the country's crisis. The marches began in Marseille, where people carried banners reading THEY ARE THE PROBLEM; WE ARE THE SOLUTION and hoisted posters ridiculing Sarkozy's refusal to pledge money to boost spending that said: YESTERDAY I WAS PRESIDENT, TODAY I AM KING. The biggest assembly was planned in Paris, where as many as a million people were expected to join afternoon protests. (See pictures of Paris.)
But the swelling movement appeared to cause fewer logistical problems than did the near lock-down in January, when rail traffic and municipal transport was almost crippled, scores of flights were canceled, and countless schools and public administration offices remained shuttered. By midday on Thursday, 60% of France's high-speed TGV trains were still operating and 45% of regional rail service was functioning. Air France maintained 70% of its short- and medium-haul flights in and out of Paris' two airports, and long-haul service was normal. And while several provincial cities such as Lyon experienced considerable disruption of public transport, movement in Paris was near normal, with the exception of reduced service on a few suburban commuter lines. (See pictures of protests on the Spanish-French border.)
Does the comparatively modest nuisance caused by Thursday's action mean Sarkozy and the government can simply ignore the striking? Given the enormous turnout and rising public anger, pundits warn the answer is: No. Though Sarkozy granted $3.5 billon in additional tax cuts to workers following January's walk-out, unions denounce that as a pittance compared to the $35 billion poured into business investment under the government's economic stimulus package and $468 billion in aid handed to French banks and finance groups. The protesters now have three main demands: that major funding be given to employees to increase purchasing power; that planned moves to cut public sector jobs be frozen for two years; and that Sarkozy roll back $595 million in tax cuts passed in July 2007, which critics denounce as a sweetheart deal that only 14,000 people mainly the country's most affluent benefited from.
Unions have repeated those demands since the Jan. 29 protests, which advanced a broader range of petitions for income and employment protection in the face of recession. Less than 48 hours before Thursday's marches, however, Sarkozy brushed off their calls, scolding critics with the reminder that "I was not elected to raise taxes [but] to reconcile France with the workplace and factory." But with polls indicating that 78% of French voters support Thursday's strike movement three points higher than in January union leaders and political opponents warn that Sarkozy will ignore the popular call for relief at his own peril. (See pictures of Sarkozy in the U.K.)
"I cannot imagine that the government could remain immobile before such a phenomenon," said Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor Union, as the marches got underway.
"I am very shocked to hear the head of government declare before a large social movement has even begun that he will not change anything," added Socialist Party official and former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, speaking on radio station RTL. "Either the government is totally disdaining, or it's incompetent, or it's stubborn. Without doubt it's something of all three."
That might be written off as purely partisan politics were such challenges to Sarkozy only coming from the left. But these days, the president's fellow rightists are also questioning his decision-making and leadership, with at least two conservatives clearly prepared to run against him for the Elysée in the 2012 elections. Former Prime Minister and long-time foe Dominique de Villepin has been seemingly omnipresent on French TV and radio second-guessing Sarkozy's thrifty economic stewardship and denouncing his decision to return France to NATO's integrated military command. (Read a TIME story on NATO.)
Meanwhile, Jean-François Copé, president of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement majority in parliament, has similarly aired his differences with the president. On the eve of Thursday's strike, Copé described the protest as a "comprehensible" way of communicating "the main message of concern for [peoples'] jobs and purchasing power."
Perhaps, but some commentators say neither Sarkozy nor conservatives planning a presidential run in 2012 have much option other than to weather the storm of protest and stay the reformist course they were elected to.
"Were Sarkozy to raise taxes to avoid cutting back the public sector even under pressure of the recession he'd be admitting the left's policies were right all along, and surrendering his political raison d'être," says Dominique Reynié, director of Paris think tank Foundation for Political Development. "The anti-Sarkozy front has gotten so wide and even trendy that it's blinding people to hard realities. First, France's 74% debt to GNP level can't go higher without collapsing, so the margin for relief effort is tiny. Second, the recession is causing pain worldwide, yet the French are the only ones protesting. The problem may not be Sarkozy." But for now, at least, he's the one France is choosing to blame.