x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sarkozy sees win in pension battle

As public support for strikes weakens, the numbers drawn onto the streets for Thursday's rallies were much lower than for previous ones.

Municipal workers clean rubbish at the end of a strike by rubbish collectors in Marseille.
Municipal workers clean rubbish at the end of a strike by rubbish collectors in Marseille.

The French president Nicolas Sarkozy is beginning to sense victory in his battle to overcome union and student opposition to the pension reforms he says cannot be put off any longer.

Fuel remains in short supply in some areas, notably Paris and the west, and the unions may be planning yet another day of action, the eighth since protests started.

But the numbers drawn on to the streets for Thursday's rallies were markedly down on previous demonstrations, between 560,000 and two million according to rival estimates from officials and unions, and public support for strikes at last shows signs of weakening.

Striking workers at all 12 oil refineries followed their colleagues in the key port of Le Havre yesterday and voted to return to work.

The new law raising the age of retirement from 60 to 62 and the age at which workers are entitled to full pensions from 65 to 67 has passed through both houses of parliament. An opposition socialist challenge to its constitutional legality will be lodged next week, but seems unlikely to stop the bill moving towards presidential assent next month.

Mr Sarkozy's government is eager to draw a line under a bitter conflict that has caused serious disruption to transport and public services and brought violence to the fringes of otherwise peaceful protests in a number of locations, notably Paris, Lyon and Marseille.

The prime minister, François Fillon, has called on opponents of the reforms - considered modest by comparison with existing arrangements and future proposals in most neighbouring countries - to honour parliament's will.

"Vigorous debate was legitimate but the law of the republic should now be respected by all," said Mr Fillon, who had been expected to stand down in a November cabinet reshuffle but may now be asked to continue in office. "Everyone should know how to emerge from this crisis with responsibility and mutual respect."

The scent of victory, while still relatively faint and always vulnerable to the whim of a volatile labour movement, could not have come a moment too soon for Mr Sarkozy.

France's image in Europe and beyond has taken another battering, with foreign confidence severely weakened by images of chaos at the airports, on the roads and in sea ports, and the return of rioting. The British foreign office is warning travellers that industrial action continues to affect transport and says demonstrations "should be avoided as they have on occasions turned violent".

In one of the worst-hit cities, Marseille, a long tradition of militancy has been maintained, with rubbish piling high on streets, running battles between demonstrators and police, and a long queue of oil tankers and other container ships prevented from entering the port.

Jacques Reland, the head of European research at the Global Policy Institute, though politically hostile to the president and his robust style of government, said he feared the damage to Marseille's reputation would be long-lasting, tempting shippers to switch deliveries to Italian and Spanish Mediterranean ports.

Growing life expectancy means pension reforms would have been necessary even if France had been spared the ravages of the world economic crisis.

The country is not alone in having to face unpalatable consequences of austerity programmes. Crisis measures have provoked strikes or unrest in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Romania. On Thursday, the German Bundestag approved an €80 billion (Dh407bn) package that will slash social benefits and raise taxes.

Some British union leaders have raised the spectre of French-style resistance to the painful budget cuts announced this month by David Cameron's government.

But Mr Sarkozy, who entered the Elysée determined to force modernisation on a reluctant France, knew he would ultimately have to choose between showdown and surrender.

The war may not be over. France's best-known face of trade unions, Bernard Thibault, the leader of the CGT, insisted on state-run television that the passage of the pensions bill through parliament would not end protest. He urged "continued mobilisation", adding that when the law was promulgated "we will enter another phase".

And the president's popularity, already low, has been severely affected by his hardline stance on an issue of profound importance to the French - how they will fare in later life.

Many in France accept the need for change. But one poll puts Mr Sarkozy's approval rating at an all-time low of below 30 per cent, leaving him massive ground to make up between now and the 2012 presidential elections.

Buried away in extensive media coverage of the most recent day of strikes and protests, a short exchange in a Parisian restaurant neatly captured the spirit of a divided nation.

"President Sarkozy will remember that in two years we have elections and people are quite angry," a young demonstrator, Estelle Wamou, told Sky News. "People may think that the French are always on demonstrations, but this pension reform is really, really unfair."

To which the restaurateur, Jacque Levacon, who admitted he disagreed so strongly that he would rather not serve her, retorted: "Reform is indispensable for this country. We absolutely don't have the means to continue like this any more. Now we finally have a president who has dared to do it, knowing it's very dangerous for him - but he's doing it for the future of France."