Roma, pensions and a funding scandal besiege Sarkozy

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The Independent Online

The three issues which could make or break the remainder of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency – pension reform; sleaze allegations and his campaign against Roma migrants – threaten to coalesce explosively in protest marches all over France tomorrow.

French ministers drew comfort from the relatively tame pro-Roma demonstrations on Saturday, led by celebrities including the British-born singer and actress Jane Birkin. The Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, dismissed the modestly supported protests as the work of leftists and "ill-informed, millionaire socialists".

But hundreds of thousands of people from across French society are expected to join protests against Mr Sarkozy's plans to raise the pension age from 60 to 62 in a day of strikes and marches called by trade unions tomorrow.

The demonstrations are, in theory, aimed at the plans for radical pension reform, which are opposed by two-thirds of French people. But union leaders believe Mr Sarkozy's weakness in the polls, and anger on the Left at his crackdown on Roma migrants will help to generate one of the largest protests of his presidency.

Allegations of illegal financing of Mr Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign have given unions another windfall. The man at the centre of the allegations, the Employment Minister, Eric Woerth, is also spearheading the proposals for pension reform.

Mr Woerth, who refused to stand down despite new revelations last week, is likely to be the joint butt, with Mr Sarkozy, of slogans and effigies at tomorrow's marches. He is accused of, among other things, soliciting illegal campaign funds – and a job for his wife – from France's wealthiest woman, L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. The unions could hardly ask for a better symbol of their allegation that Mr Sarkozy governs for the wealthy.

Mr Sarkozy has said that reform of the state pension system – and a standard pensionable age of 62 – will be one of the achievements on which he runs for a second term in 2012. His chief of staff at the Elysée Palace, Claude Guéant, said yesterday that the government would put forward proposals this week to soften the impact of the reforms but insisted that the main lines were not negotiable.

Significantly, however, Mr Guéant – regarded by many as the de facto second most powerful man in France – went out of his way to say that Mr Sarkozy was "absolutely not a president of the rich".

The strength of tomorrow's protests will show whether or not the unions have the momentum for a long "winter of discontent" like the strikes and protests which destroyed president Jacques Chirac's more modest attempt at pension reform in 1995. The Elysée is anxious to avoid any spill-over – or coalition of anti-Sarkozy feeling – between the pension and Roma issues.

Several ministers took delight in playing down Saturday's pro-Roma demonstrations in Paris and scores of other French towns (and outside French embassies in several EU capitals). A march through Paris, led by a Roma orchestra, attracted 50,000 supporters according to the organisers (12,000 said the police).

Ms Birkin, who joined the Paris march, had earlier sung a pro-immigrant song, "Les P'tits Papiers", by her late husband, Serge Gainsbourg, outside the Interior Ministry. As an immigrant from Britain in 1968, she said, her reception had been "so warm that I would gladly have died for France. I still would. But making illegal immigrants and Gypsies the scapecgoats for all our problems, is quite unfair."

Almost 1,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria have been expelled, or given incentives to go home, since Mr Sarkozy announced a policy of zero tolerance of illegal Roma migration in July.