After the Pension Fight, Can Sarkozy Rebound?

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Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

A protester wears a mask of President Nicolas Sarkozy at a demonstration over pension reforms in Paris on Nov. 6, 2010

Most observers agree that President Nicolas Sarkozy won the battle against protesters of his pension reform — a view reinforced by the lower-than-anticipated turnout for nationwide demonstrations on Nov. 6. However, the victory in the fight for public opinion goes to the union-led opposition, with polls showing that two-thirds of respondents think the revision of retirement rules is unfair, and others showing Sarkozy's own approval ratings at an all-time low. Now, with the hotly contested reform passed by Parliament and poised to be signed into law in a few weeks, foes and backers of the measure alike are looking for ways to turn the nearly two months of strikes and protests into political gain — an effort that's likely to significantly change the face of the government itself.

Unions and leftist political leaders blamed miserable weather for the disappointing participation in marches staged across France on Saturday. As many as 1.2 million people were said to have hit the streets last weekend, a dramatic drop from the estimated 2 million who turned out to protest pension reform on Oct. 28, and far from the over 3 million demonstrators who gathered on Oct. 16. But with the strikes that had disrupted public transport over, and the blockades of refineries and ports that had choked off gas supplies in France similarly called off, union officials came into November acknowledging that the rebellious phase of their opposition must give way to something more finessed. But apart from issuing yet another call to protest in the week of Nov. 22-26, labor leaders and leftist politicians appear divided on how to transform what pundits are calling their public-opinion victory into durable and effective opposition to Sarkozy and his policies.

That quest gets even harder given the effects of the fait accompli by the government and conservative parliamentary majority, whose response to opposition to pension reform was to ram the legislation through. Though nearly 70% of French deride the move to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 — and the age to qualify for a full pension from 65 to 67 — as unfair, polls taken since its final passage on Oct. 27 show that 64% of people say an increase in the retirement age was inevitable to save France's deficit-plagued pension system. Another 71% predicted that the Socialists won't be able to return the retirement age to 60 as promised if they take power in general elections in 2012. Sarkozy had been banking on such resignation — and hoping to take the wind out of the sails of the protest movement — when he rushed his reform through passage despite clear public anger over the move.

But if that gave Sarkozy a major win in a confrontation on which he'd staked his political future, his triumph in no way ensures his re-election in 2012. A bimonthly TNS Sofres survey published in early November shows Sarkozy's approval rating at just 26% — an all-time low. Fully one-third of conservative voters are among those frowning on his leadership. To make things even worse, Sarkozy nemesis and former conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin weighed in on Nov. 8 with claims that the President had become too unpopular and divisive for the nation's good. "Today Nicolas Sarkozy is one of France's problems, and among the principal problems we must resolve," de Villepin told Europe 1 radio, saying Sarkozy had failed France "because the results aren't there, because our country is diminished, because we're divided."

The President is preparing a long-anticipated government shake-up sometime this month that could slash the number of Cabinet posts from over 40 to around 15, and may well replace the austere but generally respected Prime Minister François Fillon with Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo. The reason? Supporters of the centrist Borloo argue that his reputation as a socially attuned leader — and his perennial position atop the list of France's most popular politicians — would do much to help a peeved French public forget its resentment over Sarkozy's handling of pension reform.

And as a bonus, Borloo's profile contrasts with Fillon's reputation as an unabashed champion of austerity and budget slashing. Though Borloo has been in government nonstop since 2002 (when he was called to government by Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac), he's still mostly remembered for his 2002-05 tenure as Urban Affairs Minister. While in that role, he championed the plight of France's blighted suburban-housing projects, launching a Marshall Plan for their renovation, and earning the title of France's Mr. Fix-It.

Given his enduring popularity with French voters, Borloo's appointment as Premier could allow Sarkozy to make a progressive gesture to public opinion without surrendering an inch of his pension reform. The problem is that Fillon wants to keep his job, has begun saying so loudly, and enjoys the support of conservatives in government and Parliament, whose offensive to keep Fillon in power has provoked a rupture within France's ruling right. If Sarkozy has a chance of bolstering his political position, he has to make a choice that will upset large sections of society and his conservative allies. Which means that even with the pension reform brouhaha dying down, there is more protest in Sarkozy's future.