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France Hit By New Wave Of Protests

Thousands of protesters from public and private sectors demanded President Sarkozy open new talks on the government's policies to fight the deepening economic crisis.

PARIS (AP) -- A new wave of nationwide strikes hit France on Thursday as angry workers demanded that President Nicolas Sarkozy open new talks on the government's policies to fight the deepening economic crisis.

By mid-afternoon, tens of thousands of protesters from the public and the private sectors, including employees of Air France and oil giant Total, were marching in the streets of France's biggest cities: Paris, Marseille and Lyon.

More than 200 protest marches were under way around the country as economic news worsened.

The French economy is shrinking at the fastest pace in over 30 years, the national statistic agency said in a new report Thursday. The economy's contraction will accelerate to 1.5 percent in the first quarter, its worst performance since 1975.

Union leaders want the government to take stronger steps and are hoping for firm guidance when Prime Minister Francois Fillon goes on national television Thursday evening.

"The government must accept to discuss again with the unions," said Bernard Thibaut, head of the CGT, one of France's main unions.

Although Sarkozy's approval ratings are down, he is under far less political pressure than some of his European counterparts and has a comfortable majority in parliament.

Strikes on Thursday and in January have not seriously disrupted the economy or ignited serious social protests, as massive strikes did in the mid-1990s.

Rail traffic was disrupted throughout France on Thursday, although the high speed TGV trains that connect France with other European countries ran on time. About one-third of medium-haul flights were affected at Orly, Paris' second airport, and all long-haul flights were normal.

In Paris, subways were less crowded as people stayed home. Schools, hospitals, the postal service and public transport also were affected. About one-third of the country's teachers did not go to school.

French commuters said they did not expect much to change with the protests.

Jean Batis, a music producer, said, "It's always the same game. They give a little bit, we strike, they give a little bit, we strike."

Paris police laid out two routes through the capital, rather than one, for the expected crowds for a protest march that started in early afternoon. Protest organizers hoped warm, sunny weather would help draw big crowds.

"I have come because we must show our solidarity and because there is high unemployment around me," said Michel Denigo, a 60-year-old retiree at a rally in the western city of Rennes.

A strike in late-January put between 1 million and 2.5 million people into French streets. Weeks later, Sarkozy announced measures to help people affected by the financial crisis, including special bonuses for the needy. Union leaders say that is not enough.

Sarkozy told ministers at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that he "understood the worries of the French," but said he had no plans for additional measures.

Budget Minister Eric Woerth said the measures already announced will increase social expenditures in 2009 by nearly euro10 billion (about $13 billion).

Scott Sayare of the Paris bureau contributed to this report.

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