Editor’s Diary - Black November

13th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

Expatica Editor Hannah Westley looks forward to turbulent times.


So we’re in for a chaotic few days, perhaps even a few weeks, as the unions and the public sector flex their muscle in the face of President Sarkozy’s promised pension reforms.

The indefinite strike will hit the national railway company SNCF starting Tuesday evening and the RATP, which runs Paris’ metros and buses, the following day. Union members at power and gas utilities also plan to join in. Meanwhile, student unions are rejecting plans to make universities more autonomous and are also joining the protests. Later in the month, millions of civil servants, including teachers, are set to go on strike on November 20 to oppose planned public-sector job cuts. Judges and courtroom staff will also go on strike on November 29 to protest against a reform of the judicial map of France.

Waiting for rare trains

Many of us expats will bemoan the extra complications all this strike action entails: getting to work on time, if at all, the traffic, lack of parking spaces, weekends away that have to be cancelled. According to a poll published last week, a majority of the French will be complaining too: 69 per cent of the French are said to support the government’s strong stance.

And yet…

I remember one of my first visits to Paris when farmers promenaded their cows along the Champs Elysées. And as a student, how my studies were interrupted when the Sorbonne shut down during the massive general strikes of 1995. I wasn’t so bothered about the lectures, I remember how the atmosphere on the streets was heady in its spirit of solidarity, cars put posters in their back windows indicating lifts, secretaries slung their stilettos over their shoulders and roller-bladed to the office. Getting home that Christmas was an epic undertaking, hitching out to the airport only to find my flight cancelled, tyres burning on the runways, chanting air hostesses…. I ended by finding a group of astronomers desperate to get home after a conference and was given a lift in their hire car: myself and the bag of smelly cheese whose ownership I dared not confess to. It was a long journey.

Those experiences I accepted as part of my apprenticeship to a culture whose ways and traditions were as exotic as they were incomprehensible. After all, in post-Thatcher years, British youth saw little or no point in political action; symbolically it had as much value as lying down in front of a tank whose driver was drunk or blind. France offered a refreshing contrast: a country of optimistic resistance, where people still believed in the possibility of change and acted in the belief that politicians not only watched but listened to what was going on in the streets.

Now it appears, we’ve all grown up and the time for change may be past. In an interview with Journal de Dimanche, Prime Minister François Fillon said the government’s latest proposals are non-negotiable: “In the past, we’ve presented reform projects that were too ambitious, and finally we relented and were left with only an illusion of reform… We no longer want that. We’ve presented a reasonable project. The status quo is no longer possible.”


This week could be the real test of Sarkozy’s resolve and the political vultures are already watching and waiting. For those of you who have missed the fun, here’s what some of the press is saying:

For the International Herald Tribune, Sarkozy is already putting his legacy on the line: “If he surrenders to strikers planning to bring France to a halt in the coming days and weeks, his reformist credentials may end up irrevocably damaged. If he holds firm against stubborn unions, he stands a chance of joining the ranks of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as a leader who forced momentous change on a nation in bad need of an overhaul. Crucially, the reform-resistant French public may this time take Sarkozy’s side.”

The Independent sees Sarkozy and his Prime Minister François Fillon playing out a bizarre soft cop-hard cop double-act: “President Sarkozy and his Prime Minister, M. Fillon has repeatedly stated that there can be no turning back, especially in the symbolic reduction of the special pension rights of railwaymen, power workers and other public sector employees.

President Sarkozy, meanwhile, has tried to play the role of a more understanding fairy Godfather. He turned up at one of the most militant railway workshops in Paris and told the startled railwaymen that the cuts in pension rights would apply only to newly hired staff. This was more than even most of the eight railway unions had demanded. The government rapidly shunted the President’s words into a siding.”

Scotland’s Sunday Herald laments: “Sarkozy has been trying to behave like an American ever since he started jogging around the Elysee Palace in a sweaty T-shirt. That’s why the French media have nicknamed him “Sarko l’Americain” … France used to be the country that you could rely on to stand up for independent-minded, free Europe against George Bush’s neocon American empire and its lapdog lackey, the United Kingdom. Behaving like a true French statesman, Chirac had enough sense and foresight to say “non” to Bush when he tried to coerce France into joining the so-called coalition of the willing in Iraq. That’s the sort of intransigence that the French do so well...”

For the Times, this is Sarkozy’s “Thatcher moment” as the strikes aim “to break his drive to purge France of its old economic ills.”

What do you think of the debate: should Sarkozy stand his ground? Let us know at Hannah.Westley@expatica.com

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