Leading article: Good policy, bad politics

Click to follow

Even allowing for their fondness for street protests, the scale of anger on show by the French public is hard to justify. President Sarkozy's desire to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, and the full state pension age from 65 to 67, is hardly revolutionary. Indeed, given France's fiscal position, and its demographic outlook, it is only a small step in the right direction. The widespread resistance is a sign of the French unwillingness to face reality; but it also reflects the weakness, opportunism, and poor judgement of M. Sarkozy himself.

His basic argument is convincing. France's AAA credit rating is under threat. The demands of its ageing population are demonstrably unaffordable. French men and women already spend more years in retirement than their Italian, British, German, Greek, Spanish, American and Japanese counterparts. France's deficit, around 8 per cent of GDP, must be reduced before the next presidential election in 2012, and its longer term finances put on a more stable footing. Compared with the cuts in services, wages, and pensions in other European countries such as Spain, Ireland, Greece, and even Britain, the millions protesting have relatively little to complain about.

Yet they go on complaining. Yesterday was the sixth day of national protests since early September. Acts of violence are increasing and the prospect of a fuel crisis is very real. The protest movement remains split between moderate unions, their militant rivals, lycée students and a wider group of disaffected youth, but it is growing in size. And the rage is intensifying.

The President is right to deliver on a promise he made in 2007, when elected to office. He said he wanted to reduce the dependency of the French on a benevolent state. In that task, he deserves support. But he has gone about enforcing it in a needlessly antagonistic way. Instead of negotiating with union leaders, Mr Sarkozy has sought conflict with them. And his rediscovered passion for pension reform has coincided with a high profile and authoritarian assault on the Roma. That cynical campaign was designed to shore up support from potential National Front voters, whose mandate he might need if he is to secure re-election.

M. Sarkozy is pursuing these vital reforms as a discredited figure. Instead of seeking public backing, he has practised democratic politics of the worst kind. And far from admitting to his mistakes, the president seems oblivious to them. That bodes ill for France's immediate future.