November 19, 2007

The people versus Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy may pay for his peripatetic ways this week.

Having spent most of his first six months in office jet-setting around the globe and single-handedly solving international disputes -- in the EU over Polish voting rights, in Libya over Bulgarian health workers, in Chad over French and Spanish NGO workers -- his full attention will now be required back at home as the country prepares for a wave of strikes that might bring public life to a halt for the next two weeks.

The blockades and industrial action -- whether a vestige of soixante-huitard spirit or a great protest movement against Sarkozy's ambitious reform agenda -- will give some clues about how Sarkozy plans to tackle France's occasional eruptions of 'people power'.

A perfect storm?
While the issues (pensions, pay, judicial and university reform) are rather technical and unrelated, it is possible that the different interest groups will join forces and merge into one heterogeneous protest movement:

Transport, gas and electricity workers have already begun an indefinite strike in protest at Sarkozy's plans to limit their special pension rights.
Their dispute might coincide with a strike on Tuesday by civil servants, teachers and postal workers over pay and job cuts.
Magistrates are set to walk out later this month over planned judicial reform.
There are ongoing student protests against the reforms of the university system adopted over the summer.
People power has caused serious embarrassment to governments in the past:

In 2006, students mobilised mass protests against the government's plans to facilitate the hiring and firing of young people, which forced Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac to amend the proposals. Today, it is the student protests that enjoy the greatest public support.
The same contentious pension rights reform brought the country to its knees for three weeks in 1995, eventually forcing Chirac to abandon the reforms. The symbolic value of the special pensions issue will make it the central battleground for Sarkozy's wider social and economic reforms.
A 'shock of confidence'
Sarkozy will not shy from the frontline of the dispute. He was elected on a promise to give the country a "shock of confidence" and has made it clear that he "will not do what others did" -- i.e. abandon reforms. Similarly, victory is a must for the trade unions, especially to the left of the political spectrum, as they suffer a crisis of confidence in the face of feeble left opposition in parliament.

Although his approval ratings have plummeted by over seven points to 54% in the last month, Sarkozy can for now count on public support for his reforms, an advantage Chirac did not have in 1995 and 2006. The only exception is the student protest: 49% of French people side with the students while only 38% support Sarkozy on university reform. And herein lies the danger.

The body politic may be behind Sarkozy, but he has so far disappointed in his ability to reform: around 58% believe that his employment, tax and economic policy are a failure, while 79% blame him for their reduced purchasing power.

So, should he negotiate or stand firm? Any concessions now would seriously undermine Sarkozy's ability to push through his reform agenda and also diminish his party's prospects in the spring municipal elections. Yet a prolonged disruption of public life might put public pressure on Sarkozy to take action. Moreover, weeks of social convulsion could end in social unrest and even trigger a repeat of the 2005 riots, as Sarkozy's divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric has done little to calm tempers in the tinderbox suburbs.

The situation necessitates a delicate and humble response, two traits lacking in the heavy-handed, pragmatic president. He may let his Prime Minister Francois Fillon do the dirty work, and use him as a sacrificial lamb should it all go wrong.

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