John Lichfield: Sarkozy came to power on a mission to change a nation. He has failed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power three years ago planning not just to reform France but to mess with, and change, the country's mind. Like Margaret Thatcher in Britain in the 1980s, he set out to create a more enterprising, can-do country; less obsessed with acquired rights and traditions and prepared to unleash its own latent creativity and to "work harder to earn more".

Whatever the outcome of the present dispute, it seems that Mr Sarkozy has already lost this battle. Millions of people took to the French streets yesterday, for the sixth time in seven weeks, to protest against what is – in all conscience – a modest reform of the state pension system. Strikes at oil refineries, pickets at fuel depots and panic-buying have made petrol, and especially diesel, difficult to find in large parts of the country.

Strikes among lycée students – some as young as 13, protesting, absurdly, about their pension rights a half century from now – are spreading. University students are joining in. So, even more menacingly, are groups of disaffected youths from the country's troubled multi-racial suburbs.

Mr Sarkozy will push through his reform this week, raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age of a guaranteed full state pension from 65 to 67. It remains to be seen whether the wilder and more militant actions will then subside.

If they do, the President of the Republic will try to claim a great victory. But he will not be able to claim, as he unwisely did two years ago, that "when strikes happen in France these days no one notices".

Judging by the 70 per cent of people who oppose the pension reform, Mr Sarkozy's drive to mess with, and change, France's mind-set has been a total failure.

Whose fault is that? Mostly it is Mr Sarkozy's fault. There was a mood for real change in the country after his election in May 2007. But this has been frittered away by the President on a series of half-hearted and disconnected reforms which have often seemed to favour the rich. Having promised the French a government that would be all about Vous, he has delivered a presidency which has often been about Moi.

Worse may be still to come. The more militant, or more mindless, protests have no coherent leadership, no realistic objectives and could yet spin out of control. Mr Sarkozy will not back down but he could decide to crack down – with unforeseeable consequences.