France Prepares for Strikes

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Bassignac Gilles / Gamma / Eyedea / ZUMA

Sarkozy will taste the opposition as strikes take place across France.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly used the politically provocative term "rupture" to characterize the sweeping reforms he hopes will force a break with France's socio-economic past. On Thursday, Sarkozy will be getting his first major taste of opposition to his quest to create such a breach: massive public sector strikes that will not only shape the future of Sarkozy's entire reformist drive — but perhaps his entire presidency as well.

Work stoppages starting Wednesday night and running through Thursday will cause cancellation of nearly 90% of all scheduled train service across France, and is expected to bring public transport in almost 30 major cities — including Paris — to a standstill. The movement will also be backed by other public employees involved in a contested pension reform: limited disruption is expected in schools due to striking teachers, for example, while the Paris Opera and Comédie Français have already canceled their programs for Thursday with virtually all their public sector staff set to walk out. At issue: the government's plan to require most public sector employees currently covered by "special regime" retirement schemes to work as much as 2.5 years before they qualify for full pensions. Thursday's strikes opposing that reform are anticipated to be the largest since 1995, when France ground to a halt for an entire month when the conservative government sought to ram through the same pension reform.

That proposal was eventually withdrawn, though the unrest it provoked played a major role in the right's ousting from power nearly 18 months later — due mostly to public support of the strikers amid sentiments that heavy-handed conservatives had sought to snatch away long-enshrined entitlements.

Though Thursday's strikes and protests will be a massive show of force by unions, the real key to their success is whether those stoppages can be replicated and sustained over time with greater numbers of public sector workers joining the walkouts — and convince public opinion to back their efforts. That kind of strong opposition, some pundits predict, could cause Sarkozy to effectively pull the "special regime" revision off the table in order to avoid the same kind of long, bitter, and economically disastrous conflict of 1995. But such a stand-down would also badly damage Sarkozy's tireless self-promotion as a fearless reformer bent on pushing through long-delayed change that predecessors have backed away from — a reputation he'll need the public to believe in and follow if he wants to continue his policy of "rupture".

Opinion polls taken ahead of Thursday's strikes vary considerably, though together they roughly average a near 50% split between approval and condemnation. However, director of the French Revue of Political Science, Jean-Luc Parodi, notes public support of the strikers is already far below the 70% level expressed in 1995, and at least 10 points lower than those registered in 2003 — and they could fall further. The difference, he says, is context.

"Sarkozy and his government were elected to power only months ago, after a majority of voters back his clearly defined program of reform," Parodi comments. "It's therefore difficult for a relatively small sector of the population to legitimately contend that one of the pillars of those reforms is somehow outrageous."

But perhaps just as significantly, Parodi continues, French public opinion that has long tended to back virtually any labor movement by default — often to the amazement of foreign observers — now appears to agree with Sarkozy's view that the time has come for change. "Strikes and opposition to reform has been something of a rite in French society, and there's a feeling today that this reoccurring ritual is now both outdated and counter-productive," Parodi explains. "There's a very strong feeling this time around that enough is enough — it's time to face reality and move ahead."

If so, Sarkozy may ride that tide of changed sentiment in facing down protesters and tackling the "special regime" issue at long last. And that would constitute "rupture" indeed.