Strikes Hit France as Unions Fight Sarkozy Reforms

When histories of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency are written, November 2007 will deserve a chapter all its own.

The French president is poised to take on strikers in several industries — from transportation workers to university students — planning to bring France to a halt, starting with the nation's train network on Tuesday night.

Sarkozy was elected on promises that he would get rid of some of the economic brakes that he says have dragged down France for a generation, by slimming down the country's giant bureaucracy, making state pensions less generous and universities more competitive.

If he surrenders to the strikers, his credentials as a reformer will be irrevocably shot. If he holds firm, he could join Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the pantheon of leaders who forced epoch-shaping changes on recalcitrant trade unions.

The reform-resistant French public may be on Sarkozy's side, but with so many sectors threatening to shut down, Sarkozy might have bitten off more than he can chew.

Paris subway and bus workers and national electricity and gas workers are set to join the train strikes on Wednesday, all angry over the end of special pension privileges.

Unlike the regular, scattered walkouts that the French have long learned to shrug off, these strikes are open-ended. Meanwhile, campuses are starting to seethe: Riot police fired tear gas on protesting students in Nanterre west of Paris on Monday.

"Fasten your seatbelts," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told members of the ruling conservative party UMP last week.

Yet for all the unions' bluster, Sarkozy appears to have the upper hand. Just six months into his presidency, he faces no serious electoral challenge any time soon. His approval ratings, though slipping, remain high.

And the reform that has provoked the loudest resistance — abolishing a costly program of special retirement rights for select state workers — is even backed by Sarkozy's former Socialist rival for the presidency, Segolene Royal. Polls show most French back it too.

Sarkozy says everyone should work 40 years to get a full pension, instead of the 37.5 years that train drivers and certain other state workers are allowed. Indignant train drivers say they entered the difficult profession on the promise of early pensions.

Meanwhile, teachers and doctors say quality state health care and education are at risk from job cuts. Students fear the commercialization of universities will shut out the poor. Judges are protesting cost-cutting plans to shutter courthouses.

Sarkozy said Monday he was feeling "very calm, and at the same time very determined."

"These particular reforms are key," said Philip Whyte of the Center for European Reform in London. "If he backs down, he will be another Jacques Chirac. His presidential authority will be destroyed."

Chirac, who handed the presidency over to Sarkozy in May, tried to reform state pensions his first winter in office, in 1995 — and was met with weeks of paralyzing strikes that angered voters who hadn't expected Chirac to toe such a tough line. Amid public opposition, the government backed down on key measures. Chirac never regained his appetite for bold change.

Twelve years later, Sarkozy won over the French on promises to make up for lost time and make France more competitive.

Whyte noted the risks in Sarkozy's "big bang" approach to reform.

"There is a danger that by creating too many enemies at once he could end up undermining the reform process," he said.

Analysts predict Sarkozy will emerge wounded but victorious from this fight, while the unions may be forever weakened.

Thatcher's victory over coal miners' unions in the 1980s was a seminal moment in her tenure, and Britain hasn't looked the same since. Reagan's standoff with the air traffic controllers' union in 1981 redefined labor relations in the United States.

International travelers, too, are paying attention. Train connections to Britain and Germany were disrupted by a warning round of strikes last month.