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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 00:44 GMT
Is Sarkozy having his 'Thatcher' moment?
By Hugh Schofield

Nicolas Sarkozy - 20/11/2007
President Sarkozy campaigned for election on a reform manifesto
The monsieur is not for turning.

Such was the Thatcherite subtext of Nicolas Sarkozy's speech on Tuesday - his first public outing since the start of the rail strikes a week ago.

Interestingly the key words were not in the original text of the speech.

In the delivered version the president added the impromptu phrase "Nous ne cederons pas, nous ne reculerons pas" - "We shall not give way, we shall not retreat" - as if in homage to the Iron Lady's example.

In fact, there has never been the least chance of Nicolas Sarkozy "turning" on this, the most symbolic of reforms.

The rail unions are protesting in defence of pension privileges which very few in the country believe are any longer defensible.

The president set out clearly in his election manifesto that he planned to reform them, and no-one can claim to be taken by surprise.

And even most of the union leaders themselves tacitly concede it is time to end the anomaly under which 500,000 people in the rail and energy sectors can retire two-and-a-half years earlier than everyone else.

Financial inducements

As so often, much of the social tension is created by unions - essentially weak institutions in France - fearful of being outflanked.

Thus there is only one union truly wedded to the pensions status quo, but the others are reluctant to leave it with a monopoly on the maximalist position.

Whatever deal is brokered may prove just as expensive as the system it replaces

The government is optimistic that over the next days the strike will subside to the level of manageable irritant.

Talks between unions, management and government representatives kick off on Wednesday, with a month to sort out a deal. It is hard to keep fighting when your leaders are at a parlay.

In addition, it is now clear that SNCF is willing to pay out a vast amount of money - some $148.5m (71.8m; 100m euros) a year - in financial inducements to staff to encourage them to accept the reform.

The negotiations will focus not on the centrepiece of the government's plans - increasing contribution periods for rail-workers - but on all the other bits such as the pay rises and the top-up pension schemes.

The centrepiece will stay.

'La rupture'

So will at the end of it Mr Sarkozy be able to claim this was his Maggie moment, when he faced down the mighty unions in the cause of economic change?

Well, yes and no.

French strikers - 20/11/2007
Transport workers have been leading the strikes
Yes, because the "special" pensions systems have bedevilled governments for years.

Once again he will have shown that energy and commitment can force through "la rupture", and that there is no inevitability about the status quo.

But no, because the cost of whatever deal is brokered may prove just as expensive as the system it replaces. One hundred million euros a year is an awful lot of money.

And no, because even though the pensions reform has triggered so much grief, it is in many ways the easiest of the many tasks Mr Sarkozy has set himself.

He is in fact rather lucky that the unions chose to take him on on what is such unfavourable terrain for them.

A clear mandate for change, the country in favour, the unions divided: this was a reform he could not not do.

Would that the rest were so straightforward.

No papers for strike-hit France
20 Nov 07 |  Europe

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