French strikes cast pall on Sarkozy re-election hopes
The strikes paralysing France reflect a deeper anger with President Nicolas Sarkozy than that caused by his bid to raise the retirement age and present him with the biggest crisis of his rule to date.
Paris -- The strikes paralysing France reflect a deeper anger with President Nicolas Sarkozy than that caused by his bid to raise the retirement age and present him with the biggest crisis of his rule to date.
The embattled right-winger is expected to seek re-election in May 2012 at the end of his first five-year term, but is languishing in the polls with an approval rating at a historic low of less than 35 percent.
Observers say the strikes and street protests that have gripped the nation over the past two months follow Sarkozy's decision to take the gamble of his presidency -- to confront the unions and push through pension reform.
"If he sticks to his position, that'll help him with voters on the right," said pollster Bruno Jeanbart of the OpinionWay Institute.
"The question is whether it's going to swell the ranks of the anti-Sarkozy vote and give the impression that he is not listening and is deaf to protest, especially if it turns violent," he explained.
This is not the first time in recent French history that a right-wing president has faced a nationwide wave of protest over an attempt to reform France's pension rules.
A high school student waves a flag during a demonstration in front of the French Senate in Paris, to protest governemental pensions reform.
In 1995, Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac backed down in the face of a similar movement, and spent much of the rest of his time in office as a lame duck or ruling alongside a government run by his Socialist opponents.
If anything, Sarkozy is confronted with an even more powerful wave of anger The six days of action called by the unions have drawn the biggest crowds since 1995, and strikes in key sectors have triggered fuel shortages.
The immediate trigger for the protest was Sarkozy's attempt to increase the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the upper threshold for a full-state pension from 65 to 67.
But this reform, which the government insists is essential to plug a seven billion euro hole in the social security budget, comes at a time when many in France were already fearful over the effects of the economic crisis.
Unemployment is up to 10 percent and attempts by French firms to adapt to the global market have left workers feeling exposed.
"Social anger goes beyond the question of retirement," said analyst Gael Sliman of the BVA polling firm, pointing to "a very great hostility to the reform in a context of great hostility to Nicolas Sarkozy."
Members of Civilian Security, requisitioned by the Prefecture of the Bouches-du-Rhone, collect garbage piled in a street of Marseille after a strike launched ' to protest governemental pensions reform.
Personal anger towards the president has been fuelled by his association with the super-rich and his implication in a series of financial scandals surrounding France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
Sarkozy denies wrongdoing, and neither he nor his lieutenants have been convicted of anything, but the constant drip feed of allegations has damaged his image and is a constant theme of the protesters.
"There's collusion between the powers that be and the world of business," said 36-year-old civil servant Estelle Vulliez.
"They talk with the rich and powerful without paying attention to the little people," complained Adji Ahoudina, a 30-year-old protester.
"The president does not set an example," said retiree Daniel Fuchs, 70.
Sensing weakness, left-wing papers like the daily Liberation claim that Sarkozy is caught "in the trap of the street."
The president, however, clings to the hope that by facing down the movement he will demonstrate his determination to modernise France and win respect as a strong leader.
"Right now, Sarkozy is the trough at the foot of the wave," said political scientist Philippe Braud. "But he'll push the law through and for a few months he'll appear courageous.
Strikers block a key roundabout in Lesquin, northern France, to protest against the pension reform law raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.
"Right now, where he is in terms of disapproval numbers, it's his only chance to try to climb the slope by showing he can take unpopular measures."
According to the Viavoice polling agency 79 percent of voters want Sarkozy to negotiate a settlement with the strikers, and two thirds disapprove of his uncompromising stance.
Nevertheless, just over half of voters -- 53 percent -- do not want him to abandon the reform plan altogether.
In general terms, voters on the right support the pensions bill, and those who are protesting are those who will never vote for him anyway.
Thus, Jeanbart warned, if the unpopular president backs down he'll gain nothing as "it would be a disaster from the right and it wouldn't win him any credit among his opponents."
Deborah Pasmantier / AFP / Expatica