Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Taking It To The Streets
Tonight the French transport workers unions will go out on strike, hoping to repeat their successful one-day walkout that shut down the country's rail and subway systems last month. The unions face two problems. First, last month's strike obtained nothing in the way of concessions from the Sarkozy government, leading them to accuse the government of practically asking them to strike again. Which leads to the second challenge: Public opinion is largely critical of the strikes. That the public is also largely critical of the government's performance on social and economic issues seems less important to Sarkozy, who in a speech yesterday before the European Parliament declared his intention to "see the reforms through to the very end".
Significantly, the minister overseeing the negotiations had earlier this week refused to even meet with the unions, referring them back to the representatives of the rail and subway authorities in charge of the collective bargaining agreements. While he later agreed to meet a delegation from the various unions, the reception was in sharp contrast to that given to the heads of the rail and subway authorities, who have been invited to Elysee Palace for a pow wow with Sarkozy himself.
The entire confrontation coincides with a student strike in opposition to university reforms that has shut down a number of campuses, as well as a walkout of public sector employees planned for next week in opposition to Sarkozy's effort to reduce the government payroll. The unions, for their part, have rejected the possibility of joining forces with the other two movements, in part because the striking students are a minority faction not very highly regarded by public opinion either, but mainly because they're still hoping to negotiate a compromise reform of the special pensions.
But while continuing to emphasize his openness to dialogue, Sarkozy's unwillingness to compromise seems to be based on an expectation that the public will support him in any confrontation that plays out in the streets. (Already the police have forcibly removed students illegally blocking one campus.) If he's right, he'll have effectively broken the unions in the same way Thatcher and Reagan did, leaving him free to open France up to liberal market reforms. If, on the other hand, the image of violent street clashes turns the public against him (a possibility in a country where social protest is sacred and the use of police force disapproved of), it's going to be a long five years here.