Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Sarko The Silent
This NY Times article captures something that I'd noticed the other day about French press coverage of the transport strikes. After months of all-Sarko, all the time, the French President has been strangely silent the past week, letting his Prime Minister and Labor Minister do the talking. This is traditionally the way things are supposed to operate, with the President functioning as a sort of political Deus Ex Machina: guarding himself from being too closely associated with the details of day-to-day governance in order to intervene with more authority when needed.
In this case, Sarkozy's discretion is facilitated by the press coverage's narrative line, which is focusing less on the details of the conflict -- which boil down to very little in terms of actually addressing the pension fund's deficit -- and more on the public's perception of the strike. And for the time being, that's working in Sarkozy's favor, as most people are royally pissed off about having their lives disrupted for the sake of a minority pension plan.
But the coverage reflects a larger truth, namely that the strike and the negotiations that frame it are largely a symbolic confrontation intended to clarify the balance of power between the government's mandate for reform and the unions' ability to protect (their) workers' interests. The outcome of the current standoff over the "special pension" that effects relatively few will set the stage for later reforms to the general pension and labor laws designed to liberalize France's economy.
Sarkozy's strategy is clever in that it forces the unions to choose between two unattractive options. A symbolic strike over symbolic reforms has a very real negative impact on public opinion; rolling over provides the government with momentum for a reform package that is sure to become increasingly less symbolic as it progresses.
The unions, for their part, have demonstrated their ability to make things very inconvenient for everyone else if they don't like what they see at the negotiating table. And that was during a normal week in November. A similar strike during the holiday season's peak traffic would raise the pain threshhold considerably. The question now is whether they'll be willing to do so again.