Will Unions Break Sarko's Balls Too?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 11/15/2007 03:09:00 AM
There comes a time in every person's life when he or she must dig deep, buckle down, and hold fast to principle. French PM Nicolas Sarkozy is now facing the challenge of standing up to militant public sector unions whose members have been accorded privileges that strike us in the rest of the world as distinctly bourgeois, like being able to retire with a full pension upon reaching the advanced age of, er, fifty. Hence, it's hard to portray this as your typical "class struggle" when labor gets such cushy privileges. Still, militant unions are a longstanding feature of the French political economy. Several other politicians have tried to reform generous pensions but have fallen by the wayside as unions displayed their might. Now it's Sarkozy's turn as he reckons with the questions of reform: If not now, when? If not us, who? Widespread strikes have been called, causing the French transportation system to come to a grinding halt:

France has suffered travel chaos after transport and energy workers broadened a strike in protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform.

Rail services were severely disrupted and energy production reduced in the open-ended action over cuts affecting some 500,000 public sector workers. Unions have vowed to extend the strike into Thursday...

Nationwide, fewer than a quarter of trains ran normally and only 90 of the country's 700 high-speed TGV trains were operating.

Just one in five subway trains on the Paris metro were in service and only 15% of bus services were running.

Transport managers promised marginal improvements on Thursday but warned of more severe disruption.

Still, the French public appears sympathetic to Sarkozy on the matter and not the unions which have inconvenienced them:

Mr Sarkozy's contention that he, unlike the protesters, has a popular mandate does not sound incongruous to many of his countrymen.

This leads to the second point in Mr Sarkozy's favour - most voters regard the special pension regimes as privileges that should be scrapped.

An opinion poll published on Wednesday suggests that 58% of French people feel the government should stand firm. Only 34% want it to back down.

Mr Sarkozy himself remains popular, with 55% of those surveyed voicing support - more than his score in May's presidential election.

I previously put up a post on the CGT leader Bernard Thibault. Union membership is down in France, though it is still quite strong in the public sector as you can see. The battle lines are drawn as they have been time and time again. Will Sarkozy be successful when all his predecessors have failed? Burdening the state with onerous pension costs is not a viable long-term strategy. France's notoriously bad labor relations are juxtaposed with the French public's desire to see reforms through:

But although he can claim a mandate for change after his victory in May, his plans to shake up the public sector pension system have provoked an all-out response from transport unions.

This level of militancy comes as little surprise to long-time observers of the French industrial scene.

But even they may be shocked at the full extent of the country's simmering workplace tensions.

In the run-up to this year's voting, analysts at the World Economic Forum (WEF) gave France the worst possible rating in the category of "co-operation in labour-employer relations" - that is, how workers get on with their bosses.

Last year's WEF Global Competitiveness Report found that in this respect, France was bottom of the league out of 125 countries surveyed, giving it the most confrontational workplace environment in the world.

In recent weeks, the new 2007-2008 edition of the report has been published. So have French labour relations become any more harmonious?

In a word, no. The latest WEF survey covers 131 nations, not 125. But France is still languishing on the lowest rung, in 131st place...

This time, Mr Sarkozy points out that he campaigned on precisely these issues - and he sees his victory as strong backing for these changes.

"The French people approved these reforms," he says. "I told them all about it before the elections, so that I would be able to do what was necessary afterwards."

That seems to be backed up by opinion polls - but the trade unions know that in this battle, their prestige is on the line just as much as Mr Sarkozy's.