France crippled by pensions row strikes
Strikes crippled French transport and public services yesterday as around two million people took to the streets in the second mass protest this month against pension reform.
Despite the threat of more strikes next month, President Nicolas Sarkozy is convinced that mainstream French unions do not have the stomach for the kind of protests that forced previous governments to scrap social reforms in 1995 and 2006.
Although the figures for yesterday's strikes and marches were disputed, the tide of protest against the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 appeared to recede marginally.
With his poll ratings in the trough and his reputation in tatters, the president has staked his chances of re-election in 2012 on a pensions "victory" and the popularity among right-wing voters of his campaign against Roma gypsy migrants.
Yesterday's protests were, therefore, anxiously scrutinised by both government and opposition. Were they taking to the streets to rebel, not so much against pension reform, but against Mr Sarkozy?
Despite marches in more than 200 towns and cities, and serious disruption to trains and planes, schools and government offices, the signs were, on the whole, encouraging for the president. The protest movement has not gone away, but it is not growing.
The total strength of the nationwide marches -- around one million according to the police, and over 2.5 million according to the unions -- may have matched but did not significantly exceed those of September 7. The big question is: what happens next?
The more militant trade union federations want indefinite strikes in the transport and public sector, as in 1995.
The largest union federations appear to be reluctant to challenge Mr Sarkozy head on. They are torn between a fear of being outflanked by the militant unions and their longer-term hopes of expanding their limited influence among moderate workers.
As a result, the unions CFDT and CGT favour continuing street theatre against pension reform, but not revolution. They have called for three "days of action" next month.
The government argues that pension change is unavoidable -- and a test case for France's willingness to reform and rescue its 'social model'.
Plans to raise the normal pension age from 60 to 62, and the age of a guaranteed full pension from 65 to 67, have already passed the lower house of parliament. The moderate unions and the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, accept that some reform is necessary, but want more of the burden to fall on business and the rich. They also want to preserve 60 as the normal French retirement age.
Despite much bluster and a little tinkering with universities and tax and labour law, Mr Sarkozy's record of reform is sketchy. Mr Sarkozy, floundering in the low 30s in the polls, badly needs a heroic narrative for his re-election campaign in 2012. (© Independent News Service)