Leading Article: A trial of strength

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The irony was not to be missed on either side of the Channel. As the inaugural Eurostar from St Pancras drew into the Gare du Nord in Paris yesterday, its 700-odd passengers emerged into a city gripped by the sort of transport strike not experienced in Britain for a generation. What was once the "British disease" is now very much the French disease. And Nicolas Sarkozy, for all his insistence that he is not France's Mme Thatcher, has been adamant that he wants to cure it.

This will not be easy. National railway and regional transport workers showed again yesterday that they can bring the country to a halt. The unions concerned say the strike is indefinite. Nor are they alone. Employees of state-run gas and electricity companies are also protesting; they are threatening power-cuts. Civil servants, teachers, students and even members of the judiciary all have strikes planned, too. President Sarkozy can claim the dubious distinction of having united practically every branch of the public and semi-public sector against him.

Ostensibly, their complaints are similar. The unions object to M. Sarkozy's plans to curb their members' generous retirement terms. They are also angry about EU-required deregulation. And, while the pensions issue is of labyrinthine complexity, the issue boils down to the disparity between France's public and private sectors. M. Sarkozy regards public-sector privileges as an anachronism that is holding back the French economy.

The unions cannot say they were not warned. M. Sarkozy has an electoral mandate for his proposed changes and well knows the risks he is taking. As Jacques Chirac's Prime Minister, Alain Juppé vowed to do precisely what M. Sarkozy is now undertaking. France was paralysed for weeks; the reforms were defeated and his government fell. That was 12 years ago.

There are reasons why the outcome in 2007 could be different. M. Sarkozy has the example of M. Juppé's failure before him. His autobiography shows that he has thought long and hard about his tactics. He has a popular touch that the haughty technocrat, M. Juppé, lacked. The public sympathy once enjoyed by the transport unions especially may be dissipating. He has a big majority in the National Assembly and, unlike M. Chirac, M. Sarkozy is investing his own political capital. He has not delegated the fight to his Prime Minister.

But M. Sarkozy cannot take victory for granted. This is a real trial of strength. If he toughs it out, as he says he will, he will pave the way for belated – and beneficial – modernisation. If he fails, his authority will be permanently weakened. With little choice but to stand firm, his chances will never be better than they are now.