Mardi Noir: France faces 'Black Tuesday'

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The Independent Online

Strikes. Sabotage. Student unrest. Transport, schools and hospitals disrupted. National newspapers halted. Factories running out of raw materials.

France faces a Black Tuesday today. Is this President Nicolas Sarkozy's "Thatcher moment"? Is this another May 1968? Is the New France promised last spring by a combative new president, struggling to emerge from the muddled, but often charming, Old France of street protests, government climbdowns and generous social benefits?

Something is happening across the Channel but how significant the moment will prove to be is unclear. Both President Sarkozy and the more moderate trade union leaders have been trying to avoid a political train-wreck. Some militant unions and transport workers seem to have been determined to provoke one. (According to the state railway company, the SNCF, a fringe of rail workers risked real train crashes yesterday by moving freight locomotives and wagons to obstruct lines and by blocking points with ballast.) A solution to a six-day-old railway and Paris transport strike, over early retirement rights, now seems possible tomorrow. Both government and unions have compromised on the pre-conditions for talks.

At the same time, tens of thousands of other public sector workers – teachers, nurses, air-traffic controllers, postal workers – will go on strike for 24 hours today over pay claims and job cuts. Print workers in Paris walked out last night – in an entirely separate dispute – threatening to block the publication of all national newspapers this morning. A growing protest movement by students, who are opposed to private, extra funding of state universities, spread yesterday to schools for the first time.

There were warnings yesterday of serious damage to the French economy if the transport dispute continues. Fifteen factories are already running short of raw materials, especially steel. In Paris, some restaurants said that they had lost up to €50,000 in turnover since the strike began. One economist estimated the strike had knocked 0.1 per cent off the French GDP this year – the equivalent of €2bn.

All the disputes have been provoked, to one degree or another, by President Sarkozy's plans to make France more competitive, to make France work harder, to roll back some social benefits. Some of the reforms are mild in the extreme. The proposed changes in campus funding hardly address the morass of mediocrity in the French university system. The proposed abolition of early-retirement privileges for 500,000 transport, power and other public sector workers is important symbolically, to M. Sarkozy and the unions, but will hardly transform the stuttering French economy or generate the " ultra-capitalist", Anglo-Saxon nightmare described by the far left.

Efforts to resolve the dispute have been muddled by the fact that eight trade union federations are involved. Their political allegiance ranges from the social-democratic CFDT, which called for an end to the strike last Friday, to the Trotskyist-aligned SUD, which wants to turn the dispute into a general uprising against M. Sarkozy.

Most transport workers – three in four on the railways; four in five in the Paris transport system – have voted with their feet and returned to work. A militant rump of workers is holding out, some politically motivated, others sincerely anguished by the thought of losing long-held early retirement privileges.

President Sarkozy wants to abolish their right to retire after 37.5 years, rather than 40 years like other French workers. The point may seem a small one. To President Sarkozy it is a first step towards establishing the principle that France must work harder. Early retirement and the 35-hour week mean that France works less than other nations: an average of 617 hours a year per man, woman and child, according to OECD figures, compared to 800 hours in Britain.

The government has authorised a compensation package – worth €90m a year for rail workers alone – including pension bonuses and higher pay rates for older workers. Most moderate, and even some less moderate, union leaders now seem ready to do a deal. By prolonging the dispute, the more militant unions and transport workers have handed M. Sarkozy his "Thatcher moment" . He will be able to claim that he stood firm and won a point of principle which had eluded previous governments.

In truth, President Sarkozy, for all his undoubted energy and bravado, has adopted a very low profile in this dispute. He has not wanted directly to take on a Thatcher or a Reagan mantle and ask the question: who runs France, the unions or the government? A speech, or public appearance by him, to raise the political stakes and claim the ideological high ground, was rumoured to be imminent at the weekend. It has now been put off until tomorrow and may not happen at all.

Whether M. Sarkozy is the fearless, social and economic reformer that he sometimes claims remains to be seen. But the dispute has suggested France has already changed in two important ways. The national leadership of even radical union federations, like the CGT (Confédération Gé*érale du Travail) has accepted the old street-fighting, all-or-nothing approach is no longer possible. They have to negotiate intelligently on France's – and their members' – future.

When the same rail unions defied a previous centre-right government on the same issue for two months in 1995, they had wide public backing. Most French people saw the union struggle as a symbolic defence of the French social system. On this occasion, 70 per cent or more of French people have supported the government.

If the transport dispute ends in compromise this week, President Sarkozy has a chance to push forward with his reform programme. His cautious approach to this dispute suggests reform is likely to be gradual, rather than a Big Bang. So be it. M. Sarkozy is no Mrs Thatcher but then France is not Britain.

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