Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2007
Transport Strikes to Derail Sarkozy?
By BRUCE CRUMLEY
To the outside world, France's nationwide transport strike Wednesday will look like just another in a long line of work stoppages by French workers and their notoriously militant labor unions. Here on Planet France, however, those protests over proposed pension cut-backs are being viewed as the first major battle in a wider zero-sum war — the outcome of which will determine the fate of President Nicolas Sarkozy's vast reform program.
The strikes Wednesday by rail, utility, and certain public sector employees are expected to cause cancellation of around 90% of national and regional trains service, while cities like Paris anticipate almost no municipal transport at all. It probably won't stop there either. Unions at state rail company SNCF expect a probable extension of Wednesday's stoppages to seriously disrupt transportation through the weekend — and perhaps beyond: Labor leaders may seek to bridge their movement to link up with next week's demonstrations by civil service employees protesting nearly 23,000 job cuts in the public sector planned for 2008. The logic behind such a move would be to attain and increase critical mass opposing Sarkozy policies. French college students are already staging protests over approved university reform they want rescinded, while thousands of members of France's judicial system will march Nov. 29 to denounce proposed reorganization. Given that rising and potentially unifying resistance to reform, government officials believe they must stand firm against these unions leading Wednesday's strikes.
"If we don't apply this reform, we may as well stop because we won't achieve any others," Henri Guaino, a special advisor to Sarkozy, told the daily Libération. During a visit to Germany on Monday, Sarkozy voiced even steelier determination when declaring, "We were elected to transform France, and will apply these reforms because they must be applied." Aware of union promises to employ bare-knuckled defense of the "special regime" pensions, French Prime Minister François Fillon advised his parliamentary backers to "fasten your seat belts" ahead of tomorrow's turbulence.
But if civil servants, justice employees, and students are equally up in arms over government policy, why is Wednesday's transport strike and its probable sequels seen as the decisive struggle in France's wider reform drive? Firstly, because successive governments have previously proposed and failed to modify the "special regimes" in the face of union resistance. And that explains the second reason why the renewed attempt is producing a high-drama showdown. Although strong in sectors like transport — where strikes often cause enormous disruption — French unions represent less than 8% of the national workforce, and have seen their influence steadily wane over the years. Should they fail in their traditional "last stand" defense of the "special regime" pensions, they'd allow Sarkozy to storm what has been considered the unions' last bastion — and leave them with little ground left to defend.
"If he wins, the last major barricade to reform falls, and the road ahead of him is cleared," explains political analyst Domique Reynié. "If he fails or compromises the measure away, the unions come out strengthened, and he has to face the anger of his own conservative backers who will accuse him of selling out."
Sarkozy has pledged that isn't going to happen — but convened eleventh-hour meetings with unions Tuesday night. Despite the gesture, unlike previous reformers, Sarkozy's got a key ally in public opinion this time. A Libération poll published Tuesday found 59% of respondents backed his offensive on the "special regimes", with 52% approving the planned public sector job cuts. Analysts like Reynié also note the platform of sweeping reform Sarkozy was elected on in May is still fresh and expected in peoples' minds. But is that support enough? The same Libération poll showed large majorities qualifying Sarkozy's economic action thus far "a failure" — notably on daily concerns like shrinking purchasing power and high unemployment. That may weaken public support on smaller reform pain if there's no sign of wider economic gain — especially if social divisions created by protests are considered too costly by voters. But even if that happens, the political price of backing down might well be too high for Sarkozy to pay.