World Focus: Stand-off with the unions could become Sarkozy's 'Thatcher moment'

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The Independent Online

Right-wing commentators and hard-line advisers are urging the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, to seize what they believe is his "Thatcher moment". Just as Margaret Thatcher faced the British miners' strike of 1984-85, they say, Mr Sarkozy can (finally) construct an image as a courageous and clear-minded leader by confronting French unions over his pension reforms.

But will the unions give Mr Sarkozy that opportunity? Will the President seize it if it comes? As students and sixth-formers join the pensions protests in increasing numbers, Mr Sarkozy may fear a re-run of France 1968, rather than a replay of Britain 1984-85.

Developments in the pensions dispute suggested yesterday that Mr Sarkozy might get a "Thatcher opportunity" within the next few days – whether he wants it or not. Ten of the 12 French oil refineries were closed for a third day by open-ended strikes. Flying pickets of refinery workers blocked petrol distribution depots near Marseille and Bordeaux, and in Le Havre. After panic-buying by motorists, some petrol stations are already closing for lack of fuel. The road transport lobby has demanded priority access to the government's strategic oil reserves.

More than 900 lycées and several universities have been closed or disrupted by students. The wave of protest among young people, driven by hatred of "Sarko" as much as dislike of pension reform, appears to be growing. There have already been arrests, scuffles and scattered acts of minor violence. On the other hand, calls by militant union branches for a third day of rolling strikes on the railways, in local transport, in power stations and in primary schools were only patchily supported yesterday.

Some oil workers say they are happy to be the "shock troops" for the pensions protest. Others say they will continue their strikes only if they are guaranteed support elsewhere. The direction of the dispute over the next few days is critical for Mr Sarkozy's presidency – but difficult to read.

Direct comparisons with the British miners' strike are misleading; there is no convenient hate figure like Arthur Scargill. Almost 70 per cent of French people oppose the government's plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018. The moderate union leadership is doing its best to avoid an outright confrontation which could switch public opinion to Mr Sarkozy's side and present him with a propaganda "victory".

Centre-right politicians insist that the "militants" in the oil industry are pursuing a calculated union strategy to wind up tension. National union leaders say they have no control over the hard-liners.

The official union policy is a continuing "soft" campaign of 24-hour strikes and nationwide marches, which will – even if the pension reforms are imposed – keep the public on board and damage the President's already receding chances of re-election in 2012. Another day of marches is planned tomorrow.

Despite suggestions by leading advisers that the President should "welcome" or even "seek" confrontation, Mr Sarkozy is also playing a cautious hand. He has ordered that there should be no police action against oil depot pickets or school or university blockades without his explicit permission. Mr Sarkozy would like the protest movement to fade away, rather than to risk violent confrontations which could spin out of control. A "soft" victory over "soft" protest could easily be spun, he believes, into a "mould-breaking triumph" during his 2012 election campaign.

Those Sarkozy advisers panting for a "Thatcher moment" may still get their way, however. If the petrol depot blockades continue and the pump shortages spread, Mr Sarkozy may be forced to send in the police. Scuffling at petrol distribution depots would bring more students into the streets, with unpredictable consequences.

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