Massive Strikes Reveal a Tale of Two Frances

The French are not amused. Trade unions and the government know they'd better speed up negotiations and find an agreement on the reform of special pension schemes or France will soon reach boiling point. On day nine of transport strikes, the streets are simmering with discontent. Yesterday's announcement that Jacques Chirac is being questioned about l'affaire of the Paris town hall's fictitious jobs has done little to soothe the highly volatile national temper.

This is a tale of two Frances. The first is made up of 1 million beneficiaries of special pension schemes defending their "acquired rights" by going on strike, and of 5.2 million civil servants staging walk-outs over their decreasing "purchasing power" and against Nicolas Sarkozy's plans for substantial job cuts in the public sector. However civil servants have taken great care to detach themselves from transport workers, whose fight is getting less and less support from the public. Here is the key to the crisis: as long as these two social movements don't unite into one massive strike, Sarkozy still has some leverage to carry out the reforms for which he was elected. And he knows it. Hence his attempt at assuaging the "deserving" civil servants while talking tough to "the transport strikers who are holding the French hostage".

The other France is the small majority of the public Sarkozy has convinced that the economy can no longer sustain those "extravagant" 128 different special schemes allowing, for instance, railway workers to retire at 50 or ballet dancers to gracefully leave the stage at 42. The fact that some of these special schemes date back to Louis XIV provides Sarkozy with the seeming proof of their "archaism" - a motto carefully relayed by the media owned by the president's friends.

As a result, few in the opposition have dared raise their voice against the new consensus to debate the nature of the reforms Sarkozy wishes to implement. The silence of a moribund Socialist party, in disarray since Ségolène Royal's defeat in the presidential elections, has left it to the small radical parties on the left to try to explain that the special pension schemes of railway workers offer a small privilege compared with the status of MPs, who after five years in parliament are entitled to a €1,600 (£1,100) monthly pension. It has been left to the head of the Revolutionary Communist League, Olivier Besancenot, to explain that scrapping the special pension schemes will save taxpayers only €400m. A drop in the €1,200bn public debt ocean.

Reforming a country like France is an art. Sarkozy may be no artist but he is certainly a smooth communicator. His next battle won't be with trade unions but with the public: trying to get a large majority on his side against the strikers. To win them over, he has set his formidable spin machine in motion. He is trying to convince the public that France must break with its endemic gréviculture, a culture of protesting that has become archaic and pathetic, a disease that is the real culprit of France's bad financial results in the world economy.

François Doutriaux, an employment law expert and historian, recently compared 18 western countries and their records of strikes since 1970. Italy tops the charts, with Britain third (until 1990) and France 11th. The most illuminating fact is that, between 1970 and 1990, private-sector workers led the strikes while state workers shied away from the streets. The trend has been reversed since 1990, with a majority of strikers coming from the public sector. According to Doutriaux, the insecurity of jobs in the private sector has silenced its workers.

As Besancenot said yesterday: railworkers are just Sarkozy's aperitif, then he'll take on the rest of the workforce as his main course. Unless the French have him for breakfast first.


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