Four-course meal

After a week of uncharacteristic silence, Nicolas Sarkozy vowed there would be no going back on reforms that have triggered nationwide transport strikes. To an Ulster Unionist’s ears, his message would have had a profound resonance: No surrender. Stern rhetoric was met with extreme action. Shortly after he spoke, unidentified saboteurs set fire to kilometres of cabling — further disrupting France’s high-speed rail lines. Olivier Besancenot, the leader of France’s Communist Revolutionary League, said the strikes were just the aperitif and the main course was still to come.

Sarkozy would not disagree with the revolutionaries’ menu. For all their drama, this week’s events are not decisive — for several reasons. The president has picked off the easiest target first — the special pension regimes enjoyed by railway workers and some other civil servants, which are an anachronism and which most other employees regard as unfair. He enjoys wide public support for this reform, and, as the unions sat down on Wednesday with employers for a month-long session of negotiations, he can assume the strikes will peter out. He is also offering a £64-million annual sweetener in return for abandoning pension deals which allow certain workers to retire early on favourable terms.

Sarkozy has probably won this round — but on this issue alone. The big industrial battles over healthcare, general pensions and the labour code lie ahead. This is the main course to which Besancenot was referring, and on these issues public opinion is more evenly balanced. France’s 5,2-million public-sector workers may have a job for life, but they are poorly paid. Many are struggling to pay their rent and it is the falling ”purchasing power” of average families or the inability of meagre salaries to meet the rising cost of living that are causing political concern. It will also ensure a wide level of sympathy when the workers hit the streets. With the deficit soaring, a moribund economy and the European Union on his back, Sarkozy cannot rely on tax breaks for business to create extra wealth. Nor can he afford to increase public spending still further.

And yet it is to the French state that workers are looking to improve their living standards. Having recently awarded himself as president what, by one calculation, amounts to a 200% wage rise, Sarkozy might find it difficult to persuade fellow state employees to dig deeper into their pockets for La Patrie. The greater the gap between rich and poor, the less he will be heard. Sarkozy said he would announce measures to boost family budgets later this week. His door was always open for dialogue and, he said, he did not want there to be winners or losers. Inevitably, however, there will be. — Â

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