Unions Test Sarkozy's Determination to Revolutionise the Way France Works
Lichfield, John, The Independent (London, England)
Strikes. Sabotage. Student unrest. Transport, schools and hospitals disrupted. National newspapers halted. Factories running out of raw materials.
France faces a Black Tuesday today. Is this President Nicolas Sarkozy's "Thatcher moment"? Is this another May 1968? Is the New France promised in spring by a combative new President, struggling to emerge from the muddled, but often charming, Old France of street protests, government climbdowns and generous social benefits?
Something is happening across the Channel but how significant the moment will prove to be is unclear. Both President Sarkozy and the more moderate trade union leaders have been trying to avoid a political train-wreck. Some militant unions and transport workers seem to have been determined to provoke one.
According to the state railway company, the SNCF, a fringe of rail workers risked real train crashes yesterday by moving freight locomotives and wagons to obstruct lines and by blocking points with ballast. A solution to the six-day-old railway and Paris transport strike, over early retirement rights, now seems possible tomorrow. Both government and unions have compromised on the pre-conditions for talks.
At the same time, tens of thousands of other public-sector workers - teachers, nurses, air-traffic controllers, postal workers - will go on strike for 24 hours today over pay claims and job cuts. Print workers in Paris walked out last night - in an entirely separate dispute - threatening to block the publication of all national newspapers this morning. A growing protest movement by students, who are opposed to private, extra funding of state universities, spread yesterday to schools for the first time.
There were warnings yesterday of serious damage to the French economy if the transport dispute continues. Fifteen factories are already running short of raw materials, especially steel. In Paris, some restaurants said that they had lost up to $50,000 (36,000) in turnover since the strike began. One economist estimated the strike had knocked 0.1 per cent off the French GDP this year - the equivalent of $2bn.
All the disputes have been provoked, to one degree or another, by President Sarkozy's plans to make France more competitive, to make France work harder, to roll back some social benefits. Some of the reforms are mild in the extreme. The proposed changes in campus funding hardly address the morass of mediocrity in the French university system. The proposed abolition of early retirement privileges for 500,000 transport, power and other public sector workers is important symbolically, to M. Sarkozy and the unions, but will hardly transform the stuttering economy or generate the "ultra- capitalist", Anglo-Saxon nightmare described by the far left.
Efforts to resolve the dispute have been muddled by the fact that eight trade union federations are involved. Their political allegiance ranges from the social democratic CFDT, which called for an end to the strike on Friday, to the Trotskyist-aligned SUD, which wants the dispute to be a general uprising against M. …