How the Strike Could Affect France's Presidential Race

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Though many of the French high school and college students marching in nationwide demonstrations this week aren't old enough to vote, their protest movement is already influencing the run-up to next year's presidential elections. As teachers, parents, and labor unions have joined growing opposition to a government law designed to loosen labor markets and battle dizzying youth unemployment, presidential hopefuls among conservatives and the leftist opposition alike have been forced to scramble to survive the rising tide of unrest — or try riding it to their advantage.

At greatest risk in the tempest is Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who drove the pending law through parliament earlier this month without debate — and against the advice of fellow conservatives wary of provoking the very hostility the government now faces. The protesting youths are outraged that the law would allow businesses to fire workers aged 26 and under during their first two years of employment, without providing a reason or the usually hefty severance payments. Students and their backers dispute government contentions that the increased flexibility will reduce youth unemployment; instead, they say the law designates young people as the first victims in what will become a general rolling back of France's traditional labor and social protection system.

Initially, de Villepin stood firm, vowing earlier this week not to "revoke", "suspend" or "water-down" the measure, nor "capitulate before the logic of ultimatums." But with polls showing nearly 70% of voters opposing the law, and his own approval ratings nearing 30%, de Villepin is now voicing a willingness to negotiate with unions. The reversal seeks to defuse a crisis threatening not only de Villepin's government, but his 2007 presidential ambitions as well. Indeed, his new willingness to negotiate came just hours after Interior Minister and fellow presidential aspirant Nicolas Sarkozy moved to carefully distance himself from de Villepin. Though expressing his general "solidarity" with the government in an interview with the weekly Paris Match, Sarkozy then cast himself as the understanding ally of French youth, who — unlike de Villepin — knows "you should never break the line of dialogue in a complex country like France."

Sounds nice, but is it credible? Sarkozy has built his presidential profile on visions of sweeping economic and labor reform and urges "rupture" with France's social model in favor of the freer-market U.S. and U.K. versions. He's also been a tough law-and-order advocate, promising to "cleanse" the blighted French suburban projects of its young "thugs." "Sarkozy's entire political identity since he made the presidency his obvious objective has been based on tough law-and-order enforcement, and equally radical economic liberalism," says Dominique Reynié, a political analyst at Sciences-Po in Paris, who says Sarkozy's turn-around on the labor law smacks of cynical opportunism.

Sarkozy's stance on the labor law was immediately plucked up by Socialist leader and possible presidential candidate François Hollande, who mocked de Villepin in parliament, saying, "There's doubt on this within your own government--it's sitting right next to you!" Sarkozy's new position on the strike, Reynié notes, could hurt Villepin's leadership credentials, give new life to the lefist opposition and ultimately hurt Sarkozy's presidential ambitions as well. "The problem is, that's exactly what traditional conservative votes don't want any more," Reynié says of Sarkozy's comments on the labor dispute. "They're demanding real reform, real change, and leaders who will do that without heeding opposition from the left. Meaning if de Villepin and his law survives, his presidential hopes would actually be bolstered."