Sarkozy agenda for change threatened by strike chaos

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The Independent Online

France faces eight days of social convulsion starting tomorrow with strikes by railway and Metro workers, students, teachers, power workers, civil servants, opera and theatre staff and even magistrates. The protests - especially an indefinite strike by railway workers from tomorrow night - will provide the greatest test so far of the reforming nerve and zeal of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Although the disputes cover a range of issues from pension and university reform to pay, they amount to a concerted attempt by an immobile Old France of the conservative Left to resist M. Sarkozy’s so far piecemeal attempts to create the energetic New France promised during his election campaign last Spring.

Moderate union leaders complain that M. Sarkozy has deliberately sought a mass confrontation to satisfy his impatient troops on the centre-right. There is considerable evidence, however, that the President wanted to avoid a winter of discontent at a time when the French economy, and his own opinion ratings, are stuttering.

President Sarkozy and his Prime Minister, François Fillon, have undertaken a bizarre, soft cop-hard cop double-act in recent days. M. Fillon has repeatedly stated that there can be no turning back, especially in the symbolic reduction of the special pension rights of railwaymen, power workers and other public sector employees.

President Sarkozy, meanwhile, has tried to play the role of a more understanding fairy Godfather. He turned up at one of the most militant railway workshops in Paris and told the startled railwaymen that the cuts in pension rights would apply only to newly hired staff. This was more than even most of the eight railway unions had demanded. The government rapidly shunted the President’s words into a siding.

Last week, President Sarkozy addressed a boisterous and hostile meeting of striking fishermen in Brittany. He came to promise them Euros 10m in aid to compensate for high oil prices. He gave them Euros 30m – and infuriated the European Commission which said the aid was an unfair, national subsidy.

The mixed signals appear to to have enflamed, rather than calmed, tempers. The leader of the militant CGT trades union federation, Bernard Thibault, said yesterday that the largesse given to fishermen proved that the “brutality” of the attack on the pension rights of railwaymen, power-workers and others was motivated by class politics, rather than by economic reform.

At the same time, there is growing evidence of determination by the hard Left to win a symbolic victory over M. Sarkozy on the streets. A score of university campuses have been shut down in the last week by militant students, protesting against limited reforms of the French university system pushed through last July.

Several of the mass meetings which took the decision to block campuses were attended, according to university rectors, by militant railwaymen and by “former students” now engaged in far-left politics. Another 50 universities will decide this week whether to join in the protest movement.

The single greatest challenge to M. Sarkozy’s self-proclaimed status as a new kind of French leader will come from railway, Metro and power workers. The issue at stake - reform of special pension rights, allowing some workers to retire at 50 or 55 on full pensions - may seem technical. This was, however, the issue which brought France to a halt for three weeks during the winter of 1995.

Although both sides have made some concessions in negotiations, both sides - government and the more militant unions - seem once again to be determined to make the special pension regimes the test battleground for wider social and economic reforms.

Following the success of a one-day strike last month, seven out of eight railway unions have called for a “renewable” or indefinite strike from 8pm tomorrow night. Paris metro workers and power workers start a strike on Wednesday, which the more militant unions also hope to extend indefinitely.

The state-owned railway system, the SNCF, will make a final effort to persuade two of the more moderate unions to abandon the strike today (mon). It seems likely, however, that national and local rail services will be heavily disrupted for most of this week and possibly into next week.

The dispute could then merge with one day strikes called next Tuesday by civil servants, postal workers and teachers over pay and proposed job cuts. Later next week, magistrates plan a stoppage over proposals to close some local courts.