French Strikes Escalate as Sarkozy Remains Defiant

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Laurent Cipriani / AP

A demonstrator runs during clashes with police in Lyon, France, on Oct. 19, 2010

France's escalating conflict over pension reform entered money time on Tuesday, as opponents of the measure staged the sixth wave of demonstrations in as many weeks. But even as officials of President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government claimed the protests were weakening, violent clashes between police and students suggested that elements of the movement appear to be radicalizing. With the contested bill slated for final legislative passage by the end of the week — and unions set to meet on Wednesday to decide what steps they'll take next — it remained unclear whether opposition to the widely unpopular reform would ratchet up for a seventh straight week or begin to peter out, as Sarkozy and his backers hope.

Demonstrators staged nearly 270 marches across France on Tuesday, coinciding with strikes that forced the cancellation of 30% to 50% of flights at Paris-area airports, cut rail traffic to roughly 50% of normal levels and disrupted commuter and municipal transport in major French cities, from Toulouse to Lille by way of Lyon. As corteges set off in French cities in the early afternoon, union officials estimated that nearly 3 million people had joined nationwide marches on Oct. 12 and 16. Prime Minister François Fillon countered this by saying falling numbers of protesters were proof that the movement was "starting to fade." He also demonstrated the defiant attitude he and Sarkozy share by refusing to negotiate changes to their reform bill and denying union claims of big turnouts to its protests. "It never achieved significant progress, [and] it never drew more than a million people to the streets," Fillon told conservative parliamentarians. "However, it is radicalizing."

That's something everyone in the dispute agrees on. Earlier in the day, high school students who last week threw their support behind the anti-reform movement engaged in violent clashes with riot police in many French cities and continued that activity later on the margins of union-led marches. The potential for violence increased elsewhere, as Fillon and other government leaders pledged to send in police to force the reopening of all 12 of France's oil refineries, which have been blockaded by workers for nearly two weeks. Yet the government may well be hesitant to risk sparking a violent reaction by refinery workers — thereby fueling the discontent and further radicalizing the protest movement.

Up until now, the government has mixed its demands that the blockades be lifted with assurances that French gasoline reserves are sufficient to ride out action by refinery employees. But on Tuesday, officials acknowledged that a third of the nation's 12,500 service stations were dry. That followed a request by French aviation authorities that incoming flights to France carry enough fuel for their return without a refill in anticipation of the shortage worsening. As gas became more scarce, meanwhile, prices increased by up to 50% at service stations that still had supplies.

How's that playing with the French public? Polls earlier this week showed that 71% of people back the protests against the reform — a slightly higher number compared with earlier surveys that showed over 65% of respondents describing the measures as "unfair." The package calls for raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 years, and the age to qualify for a full pension from 65 to 67. It similarly increases the total time people must work paying into the scheme from 40.5 to 41.5 years — all in an effort to erase the pension-fund deficits of $13 billion, which are set to bulge to $123 billion by 2050.

Given those numbers, no one contests the need to reform the system, though a rival Socialist proposal calls for financing it through new taxes on capital gains, profits and bonuses in the financial sector. Unions, meanwhile, are calling on Sarkozy to pull back the bill long enough to engage in what they say are earnest, open negotiations to find an effective, mutually acceptable compromise.

Thus far, Sarkozy has flatly refused to do so, knowing that conservatives command the legislative majorities needed to pass the bill. He's also betting that strike fatigue, and 10 days of school vacations starting Oct. 29, will deprive the protest movement of both people and support. "The reform is essential, and France is committed to it and will go ahead with it," Sarkozy pledged during a summit with German and Russian leaders in Deauville, saying the weakness of previous governments to see through contested pension revision now make his cure "urgent." That's doubtless true. But given public opposition to it — and Sarkozy's anemic approval rating of just 26% — he runs the risk that voters will punish him for his resolve during presidential elections in just 18 months' time.