As French Strikes Continue, Unions Take Aim at Sarkozy

Paris – Public strikes continued across France today, albeit at a lower level than the walkouts and marches Tuesday, as labor leaders and left wing politicians continue to push a carefully crafted strategy they hope will permanently weaken French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The protests, which began last month, are largely over Mr. Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age. But the French left is hoping to use the protests as a launching pad for rolling back much of the increasingly unpopular president’s agenda.

Rallies of nearly 2 million French and crippling walkouts yesterday by energy and transport workers amplified opposition sentiment in France – even as Prime Minister Francois Fillon vowed to move ahead with reforms that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 in order to combat budget deficits.

Sarkozy, in a cabinet meeting this morning, said: “It is our duty to carry out this reform and so we will achieve it completely.”

Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry meanwhile warned: “The confrontation between the country and the government could get worse.”

France has one of the most generous pension plans in Europe. But with a pension deficit at nearly $55 billion annually – and in an era of austerity cuts across the continent – the Sarkozy government has moved to head off a possible collapse of the system.

In late spring, Sarkozy rolled over the unions in pushing pension reform schemes as part of austerity measures. But the French Left is banking on a precipitous decline in Sarkozy’s popularity this summer – polls shows 70 percent disapproval – to create a political crisis that will derail the president’s ambition to be reelected in 2012.

Impact of the Strikes

Because of the strikes today, 11 of 12 French oil refineries were not operating – creating a possible gas shortage next week. Harbor workers in Marseilles continue to be absent, creating a jam of some 90 ships off the coast. Rail unions report some 20 percent of workers are not on the job.

Yet fearing a reversal of public sentiment, union leaders brushed off hard-line activists and have not formally called for strikes today or tomorrow. But they are planning another large action Saturday, leaving a kind of ambiguous dissent in the air.

Tuesday brought some 2 million to the streets, including a new cohort of youth and high school students that has been supported by former Socialist party leader Ségolène Royal. Strikes yesterday included rail workers, air traffic controllers, and postal workers that brought the country to a partial standstill. Staff at the Eiffel Tower and other top tourist spots did not show up to work.

Raising the Retirement Age

This week the French Senate voted to increase retirement age to 62, the most controversial part of a complex pension package. The Senate is expected to vote on the remainder of the bill by week’s end.

France’s retirement age of 60, the lowest in Europe, was established in 1981 by President François Mitterand, who reduced it overnight from age 65. Since then it has been considered almost a sacred right.

When Sarkozy said last year he intended to raise it to 62, also agreed to by leading French Socialist presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now head of the International Monetary Fund, the proposal was considered a non-starter. But the deficit has left even many French that oppose the plan feeling the country has no realistic option. Germany recently increased its retirement age from 65 to 67. A recent study showed for the first time that retired French were pulling in greater monthly income than ordinary workers.

Most of the heavy political lifting on pension reform came last spring, before Sarkozy’s ratings plummeted. Popular discontent with the president has ranged from a perception that Sarkozy is more a friend of the wealthy, to shock over a policy of rounding up gypsies and Roma, to a government minister’s alleged connection to a scandal involving non-payment of taxes by Liliane Bettencourt, France’s wealthiest woman.

Indeed, many strikers yesterday, including transport worker Louis Raynal, admitted they did not know the specifics of the pension plan, but were on the street in protest of the Sarkozy administration.

“A lot of us are angry, there is a great unhappiness now over the economy and jobs, and a feeling that Sarkozy is not on our side,” said Mr. Raynal. “This is more about Sarkozy than pensions.”