The Iron-Willed President Sarkozy Mounts Showdown against the Unions

In a showdown over pension reform, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to wrestle power from the unions and establish himself as the steward of the country's long-overdue modernization process. Meanwhile, as fears grow over possible job cuts and rising prices, new strikes could be on the horizon.

Four million flyers have been printed, the slogans have been approved and strategists are already contemplating the march routes and rally locations. At the headquarters of the country's ruling party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), in Paris's 8th Arrondissement, plans are underway for a confrontation "with the France of the strikers."

Although the UMP leadership has not yet decided which "initiatives" their president's conservative base will be asked to support, right-wing sympathizers like the activists of Liberté chérie, a libertarian group, already announced last weekend a "major demonstration against the walkouts." The plans hark back to May 1968, when a millions-strong "silent majority" responded to student riots by converging on the Champs-Elysées to show their support for then-President Charles de Gaulle.

The situation in strike-plagued France in November 2007 is still a far cry from the existential crisis of de Gaulle's Fifth Republic. Six months after taking office, President Nicolas Sarkozy faces the first conflict over basic principles of his presidency . Since last week, railway and subway workers, employees of natural gas and electric power plants, and even fishermen and the employees of the Paris Opera have been on the picket lines to protest Sarkozy's proposed pension reforms. The strikes have led to giant, 350-kilometer (218-mile) traffic jams on highways around the cities of Marseilles, Lyon and Paris, while increasingly angry citizens have been forced to cope with overcrowded Metro trains and delays lasting hours. Like their fellow sufferers across the Rhine River in Germany , the French could soon face an escalation of the strikes.

France's striking railway workers are no longer alone. At about three dozen of the country's 85 universities, there have already been angry protests against the new higher education law, which student groups suspect is merely a well-concealed effort to privatize education. Civil servants, teachers and postal workers plan to go on strike this Tuesday to protest job cuts and demand higher wages. A few days later, tobacconists will demonstrate against the new anti-smoking law, and on Nov. 29 French judges, lawyers and court employees plan to stage strikes and rallies to protest structural reforms in the judicial system that would lead to the elimination of 200 courts.

Because the president refuses to back down from his conviction that the only recipe for success is to "launch all reform programs at the same time," he now finds himself confronted with a nationwide standstill.

'I Have Solutions for France'

Should Sarkozy back down, negotiate and make concessions? For the president and his administration, this would mean losing face, which Sarkozy refuses to do. "We are just doing our jobs," Prime Minister François Fillon insisted in a speech before the French parliament. In Washington and Berlin, Sarkozy reiterated his determination to stand his ground, telling his counterparts that his reform project was the reason he was elected in the first place. "I have solutions for France," Sarkozy said, "and I will accomplish these solutions."

But it's no coincidence that Sarkozy has chosen the confrontation over his plans to introduce early retirement options for government workers as the first political test of his presidential credibility. The reform he proposes would eliminate special job-specific privileges for about 500,000 workers known as the Régimes spéciaux. Under the existing system, locomotive drivers and workers in gas plants, for example, have the option of retiring at 50 or 55 with full pension benefits. Sarkozy wants to increase the number of years these and other workers are required to pay into the retirement system from 37.5 to 40, but the real issue is the conflict between the government and France's last remaining bastion of the left -- and the disempowerment of the labor unions.

"I have the feeling that the government is practically challenging us to strike," says François Chérèque of the leftist Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT). And according to Bernard Thibault, head of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which is closely aligned with the French Communist Party: "They want to use the conflict to set an example. At stake is the question of whether France's unions will continue to have a say in economic reforms in the future."

This is no exaggeration. For Sarkozy, who wants to prepare the nation for the rigors of globalization, the conflict has great symbolic value. Just as former US President Ronald Reagan turned a dispute over benefits for government air traffic controllers into a showdown, the French president hopes to use his handling of the current conflicts as proof of his assertiveness. And like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who acquired the nickname "Iron Lady" when she forced trade unions to their knees in the 1980s, Sarkozy wants to establish himself as a fearless reformer in a republic that has long defied reform.

Seeing It Through to the End

The idea that he could end up a paper tiger like his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who eventually capitulated after a series of tough battles over pension reform, is a nightmare scenario for Sarkozy. "I will not give in," he barked at an employee who had openly threatened him with the "pressure of the street" during a visit to the Saint-Denis railroad depot. "This blackmail won't work with me," the president hissed. His route is already mapped out. "I will see it through to the end," says Sarkozy, "even if it means losing popularity."

His prediction could soon come true. Although 54 percent of French people still have a positive view of their president, his approval ratings are clearly on a downward trajectory. Indeed, Sarkozy could soon face the end of his post-election honeymoon. He emerged from his election victory in May riding a wave of goodwill. His sympathy for seaman's widows or the victims of crime and family dramas, effectively portrayed by a compliant media, underscored his empathy with the common man. His unfailing commitment on a wide range of domestic issues from education to environmental protection and even his love of jogging, embodied the sense of change he had promised in the campaign.

From the festering dispute over a European constitution to the liberation of Bulgarian nurses from a Libyan prison and of journalists held in Chad, it seemed that there was no problem that "Super Sarko" couldn't resolve with ease. During the course of his 15 trips abroad to date, he made a name for himself as an internationally recognized statesman, a man who could stand eye-to-eye with Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Growing Disenchantment in France

But despite Sarkozy's presidential omnipresence, a sense of disenchantment began to grow in France. Poor economic performance, in particular, has been a thorn in the president's side. Although the unemployment rate has dropped slightly to 8.1 percent, more and more French people now find themselves forced to accept short-term contracts, seasonal jobs or temporary work.

Sarkozy's promise of "more work to earn more money," an idea he promoted by eliminating taxes on overtime work, has had little effect on average incomes. A reduction in the top salary bracket to 50 percent, which has mainly benefited the rich, failed to trigger the expected investment boom.

Even members of Sarkozy's own party thought it was poor judgment for the president to have followed the debate over the tax giveaways for the rich, worth more than €13 billion ($19 billion), by approving an increase in his own monthly salary from €7,084 to €19,331. "Of course, we feel a certain disappointment," said UMP Chairman Patrick Devedjian last week, "but 38 percent of the French say that things have improved for them."

Vanishing Buying Power

This use of statistics to embellish reality borders on self-deception. French citizens are even more depressed about their vanishing buying power than they are fearful of unemployment. Family budgets have been strained by sharp increases in the cost of food items like milk, vegetables and cheese. Last year the price of a baguette rose by 12.5 percent. "You have been in office for six months now, but reality has shattered your promise that people will make more money by working more," Jean-Marc Ayrault, the parliamentary leader of the Socialists, said scathingly last week. "Fuel and food, rents and medicine are emptying the wallets of the French more and more each day."

Even UMP voters are becoming increasingly resentful over rising prices. This has strategists at the Élysée Palace worried that a grand coalition of the dissatisfied could be forming, and that its reach could extend from metropolitan to rural areas.

"The danger to Sarkozy consists in the melting together of different movements," says pollster Stéphane Rozès. "If the protests continue and expand, and if they merge this week with the walkouts and protests of teachers, civil servants and students," says Rozès, the director of the CSA opinion research firm, "things could get tight for Sarkozy."

The president is still playing for time and betting that the strikers' resolve will soon crumble, which is already starting to happen. On one issue, at least, Sarkozy knows that most French people support him: Most employees believe that a reform of the pension system is long overdue, and even citizens accustomed to strikes are fed up with the ongoing chaos caused by the striking railway workers. This puts public pressure on the unions, especially with leftist and radical leftist groups losing members and becoming politically fractured. There is even internal friction within the labor organizations between their moderate leaders and radical base.

Sarkozy is playing a risky game. Even the president can ill afford an agonizingly prolonged conflict. The adverse effects of production losses on the economy in the Paris region alone are costing about €150 million a day. The strike will enter its seventh day on Monday, and each day of the railway workers' strike costs SNCF, the national railway, €50 million. As for the public, it blames both the government and the unions for failed negotiations.

As a gesture of accommodation, Sarkozy dispatched his labor minister to present the unions with a new peace offer. Under the proposal Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand delivered on Thursday, labor representatives and management would sit down for negotiations -- in the presence of government arbitrators -- within "one month." Sarkozy's recommendation to the strike opponents: Pull together.

Coinciding with the president's conciliatory approach, UMP is organizing its members and supporters to resist the unions' "blockade." This may not be the opportune moment for a mass rally of the silent majority, says party spokesman Yves Jéfo, "but if the unions carry things to the extreme, the UMP will not simply keep quiet." For now, the party is asking its supporters to close ranks. "Let us mobilize for France's reforms," the UMP writes in one of its flyers. "Support Nicolas Sarkozy and his government."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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