PARIS // Unions are preparing for a massive show of strength in the battle over pension rights as trouble piles up for France's embattled president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Transport and public services are expected to plunge into strike chaos. Hospitals, schools, postal services and public transport are likely to be severely disrupted and some unions are threatening to stage repeats of the action rather than limit themselves to a 24-hour strike.
Between one million and 2.7 million demonstrators, depending on whether the police or unions made the more accurate count, took to the streets for protests this month. Opponents of the government are predicting an even bigger reaction this time against plans to increase the retirement age to 62. The strike comes in a week that began with continued fallout from two embarrassing new books about the president's wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and the international row over French expulsion of Roma travellers.
An opinion poll suggested Mr Sarkozy's approval rating had tumbled four points to a new low of 32 per cent. More than halfway through a presidency that began with bold promises of reform, Mr Sarkozy is running into as much resistance to change as his predecessors. The French are deeply concerned about job security, spending power and the kind of retirement they can expect after decades of relatively prosperous living supported by a generous welfare state.
Despite repeated warnings that the country has been living hopelessly beyond its means, however, a large proportion of the electorate either sees Mr Sarkozy's remedies as an unjust attack on poorer sections of society - or feels it has the muscle to block unwelcome change. On the lips of some, notably the vulnerable petits commerçants - shopkeepers and small business owners - there is mention of imminent social upheaval on a scale unseen since the student/worker rebellion of more than 40 years ago.
The "Paris Spring" petered out after a two-week general strike, street battles and a lot of revolutionary hot air. But its knock-on effects led to the resignation of Gen Charles de Gaulle as president a year later. "I believe it's going to be a tumultuous autumn, 1968 all over again," said one businesswoman who has occasional professional contact with Mr Sarkozy but feels his policies have pushed the French to the brink of open revolt.
The office of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the 1968 revolt and now joint president of the Green group in the European parliament, insisted recently that under no circumstances would he discuss or make comparisons with that period. This week, he lowered his guard, telling Le Parisien newspaper: "In '68, at the end of the rebellion, there was hope. The horizon was clear. Today there's a feeling that enough is enough, but also lots of despair. Could it lead to a general strike with the aim of forcing a new society? I can answer neither yes nor no though it would seem more difficult."
In what critics see as an attempt to divert attention from unpopular economic measures and appeal to the conservative instincts that drive some voters to the French far Right, Mr Sarkozy has given priority to immigration and crime issues. But even this has rebounded on him, the deportation of Romas weakening his authority in Europe and offending some of his ministers and the Roman Catholic Church. The president's declared aim on public safety also sits uneasily with ministerial acknowledgement that France is in a state of high alert over the threat of terrorist attacks.
Set against such weighty issues, gossip about Mr Sarkozy and his wife may seem trivial. But if the president wanted to concentrate on pushing through his reforms and make the streets safe, he could have done without the newly published books about his wife. In one, Carla and the Ambitious, she is alleged to have said Michelle Obama had privately described her life as the US president's wife as "hell", a comment Mrs Obama has denied, and to have admitted using French secret services to find out who was spreading rumours about her marriage. The other book, Carla: A Secret Life, casts her as a narcissistic Marie-Antoinette figure with a cavalier approach to her charitable duties.
The Elysée has reacted angrily to both publications. But the media attention focused on their content could not have been more badly timed. One French news website, 20minutes.fr, asked last week whether the combination of strikes, the Roma controversy, the disgrace of the French football team in South Africa and suspicions of sleaze threatened to make France "the most detested country in the world".
It may seem wildly exaggerated in a world with several candidates. But the fact that the question should even be asked offers a measure of Mr Sarkozy's plight. He can do nothing about the football, but responsibility for solving France's other problems rests at the Elysée Palace. With the presidential elections less than two years away, one magazine, Le Point, has already run a cover story headed "Has he already lost?" and François Hollande is among Socialist opposition leaders now talking of moving on from "anti-Sarkoism" to a viable alternative of their own.