Sarkozy's Perfect Storm: French Fury Goes Beyond Pensions

A Commentary by

The French are not just protesting to stop the retirement age from being raised. They are also fighting to save their country from government sleaze and the dismantling of democracy.

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During his adventurous journeys across oceans and through faraway lands, Obelix, the loyal friend of Asterix in the famous French comic book series of that name, is often surprised by local customs and traditions. Whenever he encounters something unfamiliar, the fat Gaul in the blue-and-white striped pants taps his red hair and mumbles: "These Romans are crazy," or makes similar remarks about whichever nationality he happens to have encountered.

These days, as the French take to the barricades once again to protest a pension reform that appears to be necessary, one might be tempted to turn Obelix's remarks around, and ask: Are these Gauls crazy? Have the French lost their minds?

Last week, garbage collectors went on strike in Marseille, while shouting high-school students marched through the streets of Nanterre. Buses and trains remained idle in Calais, Dijon, Toulouse and Nice, where public transportation was almost shut down for entire days at a time. In 24 university cities, including Rennes, Caen, Montpellier and Grenoble, students marched out of lecture halls and became a jubilant threat to public safety on downtown streets. There was no mail delivery in Poitiers and there were no newspapers in Paris.

Because protesters had blocked access to refineries and fuel depots, more than 3,000 filling stations around the country ran out of gas. Traffic at the airports in Paris and other cities was seriously disrupted, many long-distance trains were cancelled throughout the country and truck drivers provoked traffic jams on major highways. The corresponding images, including those of small fires set by rioters, quickly circled the globe.

Those who have paid only fleeting attention to the events in France and have relied on little more than brief, hectic news reports must conclude that the French, in defiance of all reason, are fighting ferociously to keep their retirement age at 60, and not change it to 62, as the government wants to do. If this were true, one would indeed be forced to conclude that the French are mad, and France itself would have to be written off as a serious partner in Europe until further notice. But fortunately the truth looks a little different.

Yes, the French are protesting against a flawed, unfair and poorly executed pension reform, and they are angry about more than what is being touted as a number of ridiculously minor changes. At the same time, however, the resistance against this concrete reform project by a very broad, only loosely cohesive protest movement offers a welcome excuse for the French to finally vent their long-simmering frustrations with their general situation. In fact, France is currently witnessing a veritable popular uprising against a government which has been shaken by scandals and which is already over the hill after only half of its term in office. The real target of the protesters' anger is Nicolas Sarkozy, the most unpopular French president of the last 30 years.

The Widespread Deterioration of a Once-Proud Republic

The parade of minor and major mistakes and scandals of the past summer provides an indication of where all this anger in the country is coming from, and of the extent of French citizens' disenchantment with their politicians today. During the football World Cup in South Africa, the outspoken secretary of state for sports, Rama Yade, criticized the French Football Federation for choosing an excessively luxurious hotel for its national team, before it was revealed that Yade herself would be staying at one of the most expensive luxury hotels in South Africa during her visit.

Soon afterwards, it became known that Christian Blanc, secretary of state for the Greater Paris region, had spent €12,000 of his budget on Cuban cigars within 10 months -- and Blanc didn't even understand what all the fuss was about. Other administration officials, including Industry Minister Christian Estrosi, allowed family members to use their official residences, paid for with taxpayer money, for private purposes. Did they feel guilty? Not at all. Did anyone apologize? What on earth for?

It's little short of a miracle that Labor Minister Eric Woerth, the man behind the highly controversial pension reform, still has his job and isn't in prison awaiting trial instead. In his previous job as budget minister, Woerth saw no conflict of interest in the fact that his wife worked for the holding company that managed the fortune of the wealthy L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and to this day Woerth still hasn't been able to rebut the accusation that he deliberately steered his wife into the job. Woerth, in his capacity as treasurer of the ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is also accused of having accepted illegal political contributions, in the form of cash-filled envelopes, from the very same Madame Bettencourt. Woerth denies everything.

The worst of it is that in France today, it is unlikely that such offenses will be investigated or that the alleged culprits will face punishment. In the Sarkozy era, judges and prosecutors are carefully weighing which cases they are willing to take on, and the parliament has also become a blunt weapon. Under Sarkozy, the French have witnessed the widespread deterioration of a once-proud republic and its values. In the years before the "omni-president," it would have been unthinkable for a French leader to give an inflammatory speech on national "insecurity," as Sarkozy did this summer. It would also have been inconceivable for an earlier administration to pursue a policy of expulsion like Sarkozy's treatment of the Roma.

The list of failings of the Sarkozy government is long, and their political consequences become more palpable with each new opinion poll. In a reliable new poll conducted last week, only 6 percent of respondents said that Sarkozy was doing a "very good" job, while 69 percent said that they considered Sarkozy to be a "bad" or "very bad" president. In other polls, some two-thirds of respondents have said that they approve of the strikes and protests against the pension reform. But in the end Sarkozy is even to blame for that.

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