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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2007, 14:03 GMT
Does French 'people power' rule OK?
By Henri Astier
BBC News

Demonstrators protest against pension reforms in December 1995
Protests defeated pension reform in 1995 - will history repeat itself?
The French trade unions staging a series of strikes and protests against a pension-reform plan are following a well-established procedure.

The government calls for urgent change and draws up a proposal; those affected paralyse much of the country; the plan is shelved.

This may not be the way the constitution says laws should be made, but France has a time-honoured tradition of legislating from the street.

French-style people power has even acquired a force that trumps representative rule.

Last year students and unions - who are at the forefront of the current revolt - objected to a move that made it easier to hire and fire young people.

The law was abandoned, although it had been overwhelmingly approved by the national assembly.

The climbdown was widely seen as a wise move: protesters in France often have more legitimacy than mere MPs.


The mother of all showdowns between parliamentary and street power took place in the winter of 1995.

2006: Job youth plan shelved
2005: School reform dropped
2000: Protests force concessions on fuel taxes
1996: Pension reform ditched
1994: Youth wave plan scrapped
1993: Air France reorganisation dumped

There are several parallels with the current revolt. Then, as now, the unions took on a right-of-centre reformist president who had been elected only half-a-year earlier.

And then, as now, the battle was also fought over the special pension rights enjoyed by some public sector workers - such as train drivers who can retire on a full pension as early as 50.

The law, which had been duly debated and approved by parliament, was shelved to universal relief.

Thereafter, no French politician dared to touch special pension privileges - until President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Will history repeat itself? Can Mr Sarkozy stand up to protesters who have so often been the arbiters of power in France?

On the bright side

The president can take comfort from two facts.

The first is that despite France's long history of revolts - its national day, indeed, celebrates a bloody riot - the practice of legislating from the street is relatively new.

Nicolas Sarkozy waves at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (9 November 2007)
Nicolas Sarkozy insists he will not back down

May 1968 is often cited as an example of student power. But its upshot was a victory for representative rule, when a June snap election resoundingly won by the conservatives put an end to the demonstrations and strikes.

As recently as 1992, when lorry drivers set up blockades to express their anger at a new point-based driving permit, the Socialist government refused to budge and sent tanks to clear the roads.

The memory of representative rule is still fresh in French minds. Mr Sarkozy's contention that he, unlike the protesters, has a popular mandate does not sound incongruous to many of his countrymen.

This leads to the second point in Mr Sarkozy's favour - most voters regard the special pension regimes as privileges that should be scrapped.

An opinion poll published on Wednesday suggests that 58% of French people feel the government should stand firm. Only 34% want it to back down.

Mr Sarkozy himself remains popular, with 55% of those surveyed voicing support - more than his score in May's presidential election.

Lonely at the top

All this explains why unions are not solely banking on street power to prevail.

They are also trying to influence policy in the way it is done in most democracies - through negotiations with the government.

The opposition Socialists, for their part, are careful not to oppose pension reform in principle - just the confrontational way the government is going about it.

None of this was true in 1995, when demonstrators, riding a wave of support, were intent on giving the government a bloody nose.

But Mr Sarkozy's strong showing in the polls is no guarantee that he will win the current battle. Popular support is a fickle thing, and if the protest movement spreads in the coming weeks, as it very well might, Mr Sarkozy's poll ratings could slip.

Furthermore, the main characteristic of the French political system remains - weak parliamentary rule.

Mr Sarkozy has promised constitutional changes aimed at strengthening the power of the assembly. But this will not happen until next year.

In the meantime, he will have to face down the unions pretty much by himself, and stop the street being the main locus of political debate.


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