It was a long battle, but looks like French president Nicolas Sarkozy may have won this round in his war with the French left. Or did he?
The past weeks have seen a broad range of unions take to the streets to protest Sarkozy’s attempted reforms of the French social system. Public transit workers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, tobacco shop owners, air traffic controllers, fishermen and even opera stagehands have taken to organized action in attempts to resist the changes. Last week nearly half of all universities in France were shut down by protests, and there are reports that soon lawyers and judges are also going to have a walk out.
Now of course such things are not unusual in France, it’s a nation quite fond of revolutions and street protests. But there’s been something very different this time around, found notably in the lack of public support for the strikers. This feeling that the public was not behind them was probably what convinced many of the transit unions to vote to return to work late last week. Sarkozy, it seems, isn’t prepared to blink any time soon, and the unions may be starting to do so.
This current battle is just the first of many that will come in the coming year, and the French people knew it was coming. Sarkozy’s entire election campaign was centred around his central slogan, “work more to earn more,” and was filled with promises to break the power of the unions and drastically alter the French social system, which many people see as crippling France’s productivity, making it impossible for the country to compete in the modern global economy.
But no one said it would be easy, and history has not been on the capitalist reformers’ side. Former President Jacques Chirac tried to take on the transport workers and their pensions in 1995, only to be forced to surrender after three weeks of industrial action. But Nicolas Sarkozy is a very different man than Jacques Chirac. He has been very direct and clear about the radically new direction he plans to take France in, and the public voted him in (relatively narrowly), thereby giving him a mandate for change. So far, the public seems to be sticking by their vote.
How long will their patience last? We are still in the early days of this fight, and long protracted strikes like those seen in France in the 60’s and 70’s may be too much for the public to take. Clearly, its too early to tell who will win this fight, but it’s clear that both sides are prepared to dig in their heels. The question is, who will blink first?