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French unions' showdown with Sarkozy

November 2, 2007 | Page 4

CHLOÉ DEGOIS and JOHN-SAMUEL MacKAY report from France as the challenge to a right-wing president begins to heat up.

STRIKES ACROSS France October 18 paralyzed the country's rail, bus and subway systems for 24 hours in the first major confrontation between unions and President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Since his election in May, Sarkozy has started to implement his right-wing agenda, but the strikes by public workers--and the threat of more action to come--have put the focus back on workers' struggles that have defeated conservative government policies in the past.

Union action over Sarkozy's attack on the pension system for state workers is the most widely reported fight taking place. But recent weeks have also seen protests over an openly racist immigration law and discontent with schemes that reward the rich at the very same time that workers are asked to sacrifice.

The October 18 strike was called to defend the "régimes spéciaux" pension system for state workers established after the Second World War. Sarkozy wants to lower pension benefits for public workers to the same level as the private sector, forcing workers in some of the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs to pay into the system for 40 years, instead of the current 37.5 years, before they can retire and collect benefits.

Fewer than one in 12 long-distance trains ran on the day of the strike--which involved a larger proportion of rail workers than the massive upheavals of 1995 that halted a similar attack on public-sector benefits.

Other transportation workers joined the strike. Paris' Metro subway system was effectively shut down. More than half of workers for the gas and electricity systems walked out, as did groups of teachers and other government workers.

Sarkozy has other plans in place to attack government workers. He wants to eliminate nearly 23,000 civil servants' jobs in 2008 by not replacing retiring workers--one of the biggest cuts in state jobs this decade. Unions have announced a one-day strike for November 20 to protest this and other attacks.

Meanwhile, a strike over pay and working conditions by flight crews hit Air France in late October, grounding numerous international flights for several days.

Rail workers are preparing for further action. The day after the October 18 walkout, strikes continued in some places without official support from union federations. Rail workers' unions are now threatening an "open-ended" walkout in November if Sarkozy doesn't back down.

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OTHER ASPECTS of Sarkozy's right-wing program have stirred anger and protest. Last week, the National Assembly passed hotly contested immigration proposals from Sarkozy.

The law requires two months of language instruction for immigrants joining relatives already living in France and requires "French values" tests. Responsibility for policy on refugees would be shifted from the Foreign Ministry to a newly created department with the Orwellian name Ministry of Immigration and National Identity.

The most controversial provision allows the use of DNA testing on people coming to join relatives or loved ones working in France. The echoes to the laws of the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime during the Second World War were plain. "Have we forgotten what happens when xenophobia makes use of science?" asked the actress and activist Isabelle Adjani.

Since Sarkozy's election, raids against undocumented immigrants have increased considerably. Now comes the new law--which, in a country where an estimated one-quarter of the population is from an immigrant background, is clearly aimed at distinguishing between desirable migrants (European) and undesirable ones (those from the former African and Middle Eastern French colonies).

Socialist Party member Fadela Amara, the daughter of Algerian immigrants who joined the conservative government as secretary of state for urban affairs, despite Sarkozy's harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric during the campaign, is threatening to step down.

Demonstrations have been organized across France in solidarity with immigrants. On October 20, thousands of people gathered for rallies in all the major cities of France to protest the threat posed by the immigration law.

Struggles are being organized on other fronts, as well. Health care workers and professionals are challenging government measures to eliminate a spending deficit that they fear could lead to a "two-speed system"--with higher quality services available to the well to do. College professors and students are protesting privatization of schools and increasing social injustice within the education system.

Sarkozy, meanwhile, has made it plain where his priorities lie. Among his first acts as president was to scrap most inheritance taxes and introduce tax breaks for wealthy households investing in small companies or housing--worth an estimated 9 billion euros. His aim is to transfer wealth to the top of society, even as he and his government blame workers for the "hole in the budget."

This is the basic source of spreading discontent in France. Leaders of the moderate Socialist Party showed their lack of inclination to fight by announcing that members are free to participate in Sarkozy's government. The left outside the Socialists remains divided and disorganized, but the fights against Sarkozy's agenda are creating the ingredients for building a genuine left-wing challenge.

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