Six months on, Sarkozy faces black November

6th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

6 November 2007, PARIS (AFP) - Six months after his election victory in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is vowing to stay the course of reform as unions prepare to make November the most difficult month of his presidency.

6 November 2007

PARIS (AFP) - Six months after his election victory in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is vowing to stay the course of reform as unions prepare to make November the most difficult month of his presidency.

The perpetual-motion president returned Sunday from a snap visit to Chad where he brought back three French journalists and four Spanish air hostesses detained over a charity's attempt to fly some 100 children to France.

He heads to Washington on Tuesday to confirm his pro-American credentials and press on with his drive to make France the leading European power under his presidency.

But the biggest test of Sarkozy's presidency lies in his domestic reform agenda, where stormclouds are gathering on many fronts.

As Sarkozy heads to the White House, rail and energy unions are preparing fresh strike action beginning on November 13 over plans to scrap pension privileges that allow some public employees to retire as early as 50.

Civil servants have called a strike for November 20, accusing the government of failing to consider "their two priority demands -- purchasing power and public sector jobs."

Sarkozy has announced plans to scrap 22,900 civil service jobs next year by not replacing retiring employees, the biggest job cut in the public sector in six years.

The UNEF student union, which succeeded in mobilising hundreds of thousands of people in the streets over a contested youth jobs contract last year, has said it will join the civil servants on November 20.

A first strike on October 18 failed to push Sarkozy's right-wing government to back down and the president has shown no sign that he will yield to union demands.

"The government has not drawn the lessons from the October 18 industrial action," said Didier Le Reste of the CGT rail union. "The responsibility for a decision to hold a new national day of strike action rests essentially with the government and the head of state."

Strikes and mass protests forced a previous government to back down on the reform of the so-called "special regimes" in 1995.

"This is the test of his presidency," said Philip Whyte, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London. "Its' going to be a Teutonic battle."

Whyte drew a parallel with Margaret Thatcher's showdown with the miners in the 1980s that defined her legacy for taking on the unions. "It has the same kind of political symbolism," he said.

Judges and court clerks have said they will take to the streets across France on November 29 to protest a plan to reorganise the court system that is championed by Justice Minister Rachida Dati, one of Sarkozy's star ministers.

The 52-year-old son of a Hungarian immigrant won a convincing victory six months ago on a pledge to bring change to France by loosening labour law and bringing down unemployment, among the highest in the 13-nation eurozone, the EU member states that have adopted the euro currency union.

Despite sluggish economic growth figures, the president has rejected suggestions that France is headed for belt-tightening measures to bring its deficit -- among the highest in the European Union -- under control.

"To those who say we must make budget reduction a priority instead of reform, I say they are confusing causes and consequences, because it is reform that will allow the deficit to be reduced," Sarkozy said on Monday.

On a personal level, Sarkozy was shaken when he and his wife Cecilia ended their 11-year marriage. His office announced the divorce by mutual consent on October 18.

AFP

Subject: French news

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