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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 September 2007, 08:14 GMT 09:14 UK
Will the French buy Sarkozy reforms?
By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Mr Sarkozy has ruffled union feathers with his reform plans
Watching Nicolas Sarkozy's pension and civil service reform speeches this week, I was struck by the number of times he used emphatic phrases such as "I will not give in" and "I will see this through to end" juxtaposed with conciliatory terms like "negotiation" and "by mutual agreement".

President Sarkozy insists that France needs to change and that nothing will derail his ambitious programme of reform.

But at the same time, he is not so confident as to ignore the warnings of history.

The last time a government tried to interfere with pension benefits back in 1995, the country reacted with three weeks of mass strikes which brought the nation to a grinding halt.

Unions mobilising

With that in mind, the president has to tread a little more cautiously than he would like.

France's powerful unions are already mobilising.

The big transport unions have called for a day of action on 17 October and may well be supported by others.

They are responding to the president's announcement on Tuesday that he is proposing to end the pension perks enjoyed by some public sector workers, like train drivers and electricity workers, which allow them to retire on full benefits as early as 50.

The scheme was created in the post-war era to attract skilled workers for the reconstruction effort and was also in recompense for jobs which, at the time, were thought to be dangerous.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on 20 September 2007
Mr Sarkozy's high approval ratings leave him room to gamble

Such a system now costs the government around 6bn euros (4.18bn; $8bn) a year and Mr Sarkozy insists the state coffers simply do not have enough money any more for these generous handouts.

Only if negotiations with the unions fail would he force through a solution, he promised, but the unions are clearly taking no chances.

A day after he announced the proposed pension reforms, the French president declared that with more than 5 million civil servants, France is a little top heavy and needs to be pruned back.

Over the past 20 years, the state has hired nearly a million extra civil servants whose function has not always been too clear.

Under the new plans, one out of two public servant retirees would not be replaced while other workers could be bought out.

Mr Sarkozy has set the lean example in his own slimmed-down cabinet which is about half the size of his predecessor Jacques Chirac's team.

He has promised the French people that not a single euro of public money will be wasted.

Dog with a bone

But can he promise them that his proposed public service cuts will not leave their hospitals or state-run child care facilities under-staffed?

Despite a small drop, Sarkozy's high approval ratings give him some room to gamble.

The unions may be calling for a strike, but after 12 years of what many saw as inertia under Jacques Chirac, this new, younger man of action is largely admired.

His speeches may be a little repetitive, indeed some in the French press complain he is a bit like a stuck record.

But Nicolas Sarkozy remains true to his election mantra: "Work more to earn more."

Like a dog with a bone, the president will not let it drop.

If Mr Sarkozy has his way, not only will pension perks and surplus civil servants go, but the rules of the 35-hour week which he blames for hiking unemployment will also be further relaxed.

France elected this man because they wanted change - but will there be just too many changes for the French to stomach all at once?




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