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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 12:36 GMT
French unions test Sarkozy's resolve
The French elected Nicolas Sarkozy because they said they wanted change. So why, just seven months into his presidency and reform programme, are transport workers, electricity workers, students, teachers, civil servants, magistrates and even opera singers preparing to go on strike, asks the BBC's Emma Jane Kirby.

Nicolas Sarkozy waves at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (9 November 2007)
Nicolas Sarkozy is poised to take on strikers in several sectors this week

Last week, while on a visit to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, the resting place of Charles de Gaulle, President Sarkozy was asked by a journalist whether he was prepared for what was clearly going to be a very difficult week of strikes.

"It's not the week that's difficult," he snapped. "It's my job!"

There is no doubt that in trying to reform his country, the French leader faces an enormous challenge.

Despite the fact that he was elected on a promise to change France after more than a decade of virtual inertia under his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Mr Sarkozy's programme of economic reform has hardly been welcomed.

Open-ended strike

From Tuesday evening, the nation's rail network will grind to a halt as transport workers protest at plans to end their special retirement perks, which allow some staff like train drivers to retire on full pensions at 50.

A passenger waits for a train at an empty platform in Paris (18 October 2007)
October's strike crippled public transport across France for two days

The strike is their second in a month and this time it is open-ended.

Hot on their heels, Paris Metro workers have called a day of action on Wednesday, which militant unions hope to extend.

The action will be supported by gas and electricity workers, while protests by teachers and students are also planned next week, with the students threatening to block university campuses and train stations.

Plans to overhaul the judicial service and to shut some courthouses have prompted magistrates to strike too - just after a massive one-day strike planned by civil servants on 20 November.

Stubbornly tenacious

Used to protesting on the streets rather than via parliament, the French can be stubbornly tenacious when it comes to striking.

In 1995, three continual weeks of strikes by public and transport workers against planned reforms brought France to its knees and forced the government to back off.

Students attend a general assembly at the Rennes II University with a banner reading: "Work kills, long live the strike!"
[Mr Sarkozy] will not be trapped in confrontation on the street where it's clear that one or the other side is sure to lose in the end
Xavier Timbeau

Mr Sarkozy, though, is made of stronger stuff. So, will he choose to fight till the last and appropriate that famous adage of Margaret Thatcher?

"To those waiting...[for] the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!" she said in a defiant speech at the Conservative Party conference in 1980.

He is unlikely to hold out though, according to the economist, Xavier Timbeau.

"Sarkozy knows that a hard conflict will only strengthen the opposition," he says.

"He will not be trapped in confrontation on the street where it's clear that one or the other side is sure to lose in the end."

"Even if he won a victory, he knows he'd have to pay for it very dearly sooner or later. What he wants is negotiation."

Unfulfilled promises

The unions complain there has not been enough negotiation and that Mr Sarkozy is too bullish and brutal in imposing his reforms.

Mr Timbeau insists they are being unrealistic.

CGT Railway leader at the state-owned SNCF railway company, Didier Le Reste (C), speaks during a meeting with union members to discuss the strike (12 November 2007)
The strikes will be a major test of Mr Sarkozy's reform package

"They dream of a model that looks a bit like the UK, but they don't see it took Britain the Thatcher years of pain to get there. The French are not ready yet to inflict that pain on themselves," he adds.

"Work more to earn more" was Mr Sarkozy's electoral campaign slogan, but while the people might be working longer, the rising global price of food and fuel means they are not feeling the benefits of those extra hours.

The promise that their purchasing power would increase has not yet been fulfilled and it is causing the ordinary French citizen to grumble.

When the 1995 strikes crippled France, the passive President Chirac let his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, take the blame.

Mr Sarkozy, however, has authored and built his reputation on these reforms, so if they fail, he knows the buck stops with him.

SEE ALSO
Commuter misery in Paris
18 Oct 07 |  Europe



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