Sarkozy Under Pressure as French Strikes Continue

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Philippe Desmazes / AFP / Getty Images

Fight over the future High school students protesting in Lyon shield themselves from tear gas

Strikes and mass demonstrations may be nothing novel in France, but there's a mood of growing bitterness in the confrontation between President Nicolas Sarkozy and opponents of his pension reform. On Oct. 19, nearly 270 marches drew what unions said were 3.5 million people into the streets, the most recent of six movements that have mobilized millions of protesters since early September. The action has left travelers stranded because of public-transport work stoppages that tied up rail, air, bus and subway traffic and created the typical television footage of grim French workers expressing support for the very strikes that turned their commutes into a marathon slog.

Then protesters added a twist: oil workers blockaded refineries, causing a fuel shortage that left over 30% of the nation's service stations shuttered — and eliminated car travel as an option for many marooned voyagers. Those who could fill their tanks often found themselves blocked in protests by truckers; news reports described pitched battles between riot police and high school students across France who have backed the demonstrations. Amid all the turmoil and confusion, only one thing seemed sure in most people's minds: it somehow was all Sarkozy's doing.

"This is the government's fault because it knows its pension reform has been rejected by a majority of French people, yet it refuses to negotiate the most contested aspects of the plan," says a 32-year-old who identified herself only as Laure, saying she didn't want her name disclosed because she phoned in to work sick so she could join that day's marches in Paris. "People from all age groups and social categories oppose this reform for being very unfair, and I think there will be an explosion if the government just ignores that."

It's an implosion of France's pension system that is really the risk. The pay-as-you-go scheme currently runs a $13 billion deficit that's set to balloon to $123 billion by 2050 as a glut of baby boomers retire and start drawing pensions that those still in jobs won't be able to finance. To avoid that, Sarkozy's government is embracing measures similar to those taken in other European countries, notably in Germany three years ago: requiring people to work and pay into the pension fund longer. Sarkozy's plan raises the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age to collect a full pension from 65 to 67. It also calls for increasing the total required years of payment into the system from 40.5 to 41.5. At a time when increasing life expectancy is playing havoc with pension calculations all over the world, the change can hardly be described as dangerously radical.

The vast majority of French know that the current system isn't financially viable, with one March poll finding that 80% think a revision of the pension program is necessary. Given that, the main question is really whether the French accept Sarkozy's reform now or someone else's version of it later. Despite the consensus that action is inevitable, later is carrying the day; polls show that 66% of the public decry Sarkozy's proposal as unfair. According to opponents, the measures will force people who begin working earlier in life to work longer than others. A rival plan by the Socialist Party maintains most current benefits and calls for new taxes on capital gains to raise $34 billion to finance the scheme — an option specialists say ignores an inevitable extension of people's career lengths. Among experts, there's a consensus that any reform to the pension system will involve a degree of pain across the board.

Given that agreement, finding some sort of middle ground shouldn't be that hard. But the contest has become bitter, pitting Sarkozy's determination to ram his proposal into law against opponents' claims that their popular support has robbed it of all legitimacy. Sarkozy's government braved the Oct. 19 demonstrations, pledging quick final adoption and banking on the approach of school vacations — and differences among the unions about what to do next — to sap the protests of their force. On Oct. 20, officials ordered police to break the refinery blockades that had begun immobilizing the nation.

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