November 23, 2007


France in no mood to say vive la revolution: As strikes appear to be losing public support, President Sarkozy's reforms gain favor (Geraldine Baum, November 23, 2007, LA Times)

Although Sarkozy has expressed willingness to meet, negotiate with and even have long, informal dinners with trade union leaders, he has made it clear that he will insist on workers paying into the pension system for at least 40 years.

In a speech this week, he emphasized that he intended to remain firm, but said he was not out for a showdown: "I do not want a winner or a loser."

And Thursday, although commuters were still too grumpy to start celebrating, it looked like the worst of the rail strike was behind them. (Air France pilots, however, were threatening to stay off the job starting Saturday.)

Most unions at the state-owned national railroad and many metro and bus drivers announced they would wind down protests over the weekend even as they continued to press their agenda at the negotiating tables. But a leftist union warned that the strike was merely suspended and that if talks didn't go their way, they would walk again around the December holidays.

The appearance, at least, of being open to dialogue has helped Sarkozy win public support, according to recent polls. And to the extent that he received a mandate for reform during the election, it has been strengthened by the strikes.

Since October, when the periodic strikes began, support for the president's reform efforts has gone up while support for strikes has gone down, says Pierre Giacometti, an analyst with the polling firm Ipsos.

As of last weekend, 66% of the French, a significant increase from the previous weekend, were behind Sarkozy's pension changes, an Ipsos poll showed. Only a third expressed general support for the strikes.

Giacometti depicts recent union actions as a continuation of the election struggle. Sarkozy defeated Socialist Segolene Royal, who had vowed not to touch the special pensions, in a runoff election.

"We are convinced that these strikes are run by a very political movement of student extremists and trade unionists out for a third round of the election," Giacometti says.

"Sarkozy already won, but some political vehicles want to fight him again in the streets. But the public doesn't want another battle."

In fact, appearances this time around don't capture a profound change beneath the surface.

At an anti-strike march last weekend of about 10,000 people, many seemed as much pro-Sarkozy as against a tradition of governing in France that allows presidents and Parliaments to be trumped by unionists inflicting distress on the public.

Guy Lacombe says he doesn't usually join public marches but, well, he needs to march to end the relentless marching.

"If France is known for its many strikes, we want that to change," says Lacombe, who boasts that he is still working at 64.

"We want the French mentality to change, because it's always the same people who go on strike while everybody else has to work."

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2007 8:46 AM
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