Victory for Sarkozy comes at a political cost

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The pension dispute which has disrupted France for two weeks moved yesterday towards a messy, and possibly empty, victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy. As the law raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 cleared its last parliamentary hurdle yesterday, fuel strikes and blockages eased and student support for the protests all but collapsed.

Unions have called another nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations today, which will severely reduce air and railway traffic. Guerrilla action by the more militant union branches may continue for several days. A separate dockers' strike, blocking oil imports, coupled with persistent strikes at five out of 12 refineries, will postpone the restoration of full supplies to petrol stations until next week.

But the many-layered crisis which seemed to threaten France a week ago has failed to materialise. A threatened student uprising fell flat at the start of this week's half-term holidays. Scattered violence by young people from the poor, multiracial suburbs of Lyon and Paris failed to spread. Above all, the petrol strikes and blockades, ordered by hard-line union branches, did not bring the country to its knees and did not win widespread backing from workers in other strategic industries.

The outcome is a victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy but it remains to be seen whether it will revive his miserably low poll ratings and help him to win a second term in 2012. There was little triumphalism from the government yesterday.

The pension reform remains deeply unpopular with French people. One of the parliamentary amendments accepted by the government in recent days means that the Kafkaesque state pension system will be re-examined from top to bottom in three years' time. Since this was what the more moderate union federations requested in the first place, Mr Sarkozy's claim to have imposed the "mother of all reforms" can reasonably be called into doubt.

The dispute has, however, also revealed deep divisions within the ranks of the unions and exposed a lack of alternative ideas in the centre-left political opposition.

The pension reform law, which also raises the guaranteed age of a full pension from 65 to 67, received its final reading in the National Assembly yesterday. The centre-left opposition has referred the law to France's constitutional watchdog, more out of stubbornness than in any hope that it will be rejected. The reform will not therefore finally become law for another 10 to 15 days.