Can Sarkozy be stopped?

Lee Sustar looks at the labor resistance to Nicolas Sarkozy's effort to raise the retirement age--and the weaker response to his attacks on Muslims and immigrants.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (Anita Maric)French President Nicolas Sarkozy (Anita Maric)

DESPITE A strike and protest by some 3 million workers and their supporters, and a vow of further action by labor unions, the French National Assembly voted September 15 to pass President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.

To advance pension "reform," Sarkozy is seeking to drive the political atmosphere to the right--by pushing through law banning the burqa, the full veil used by some Muslim women, and by expelling about 1,000 Roma people from the country in August. An estimated 100,000 people turned out for a widely sponsored September 4 protest in Paris against the deportations, along with protests in smaller cities around the country.

Sadly, though the mobilization of French unions pushed a sizeable number of legislators from the Socialist Party (SP) and Communist Party (CP) to resist changes in the retirement plan, there has been little of this kind of opposition from the left to Sarkozy's anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant policies.

The anti-burqa law passed the National Assembly in July by a 335-to-1 vote. As the Associated Press noted at the time, "most members of the main opposition group, the Socialist Party, walked out and refused to vote, though they, in fact, support a ban. They simply have differences over where it should be enforced, underscoring the lack of controversy among French politicians on the issue." On September 14, the French Senate passed the burqa ban by 246-1, with the Socialists again abstaining.

As for the assault on the Roma immigrants, many human rights groups and advocates have criticized the Sarkozy government's deportations. Sarkozy is responding by denouncing critics of the policy--including from the UN and the European Union--for "interfering" in French national affairs. Thanks to the left's failure to challenge the right-wing atmosphere on the burqa and previous immigration issues, Sarkozy is scoring political points by doing so.

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SARKOZY'S POLITICAL strategy is transparent. After his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) suffered setbacks in regional elections in March--the anti-immigrant, far-right National Front got more than 12 percent in the first round of voting--the French president renewed his anti-immigrant, Muslim-bashing policies in a bid to not only co-opt the National Front's base, but to maneuver sections of the mainstream left into backing those policies.

Immigrant-bashing is an old Sarkozy tactic: as interior minister in 2005, he notoriously referred to immigrant youth who rioted following police violence as "scum." Now, "Sarkozy would weld the majority of workers behind the illusory idea of a community of interest, based on blood and culture," wrote Vanina Giudicelli of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA, according to its initials in French).

The Socialist Party had the political momentum to challenge Sarkozy's anti-immigrant pandering--if it wanted to do so. In the final round of voting in the regional elections, the SP and its allies gained a record 54.1 percent of the national vote, against 35.5 percent for Sarkozy's UMP and 9.2 percent for the National Front.

At the same time, a campaign finance scandal and allegations of a Watergate-style cover-up involving the French security services has opened fissures in the UMP, and the president's popularity dropped its lowest levels yet, according to opinion polls.

But the SP, while opposing the expulsion of the Roma, split over the burqa ban, with some supporting the law in the name of feminism. The SP's refusal to take a principled stand for immigrants and Muslims has contributed to an environment in which Sarkozy could record an increase in his popularity following the deportation of the Roma.

Yet despite the mainstream left's unwillingness to confront the immigration and anti-Islam issues head on, a president who seemed unstoppable some 18 months ago was already embattled when he made his big push toward pension reforms.

The attack on pensions has stripped away what little remains of the populist posturing that helped Sarkozy win the presidency in 2007. As recently as January, at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he called for greater regulation of capitalism, stating, "[W]e can only save capitalism and a market economy by re-engineering it, by giving a conscience to it."

But as the Economist reported, "The champion of the worker is now wielding the ax, cutting jobs in teaching, hospitals and the police force."

Under the current system, workers can qualify for partial pensions at age 60 if they have been paying into the system for 40.5 years, and get full benefits at age 65. Sarkozy's proposed reforms, if passed by the Senate later this month, would lengthen the minimum working career by one year, push early retirement back until age 62 and delay full benefits until age 67.

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TO TRY to block the reform, French unions took to the streets September 7 with a mass strike and protest. An estimated 3 million people took part, the biggest such demonstration in years.

"Striking transport workers...brought chaos to the Paris Metro, while trains connecting the airport to Paris were at a virtual standstill," reported the International Transport Workers Federation. "The railways were also affected, and France's civil aviation authority demanded that airlines reduce the number of flights to and from Paris's two main airports."

French socialist Web sites reported that workers in small towns and villages also participated in the strike in large numbers, including groups of workers with little or no union organization.

Nevertheless, the Assembly passed the bill last week, despite parliamentary stalling tactics by the SP.

The Assembly bill did make a few small concessions to the unions, such as allowing earlier retirement by those who work in strenuous jobs. And Gérard Larcher, president of the French Senate and a member of Sarkozy's UMP party, told the French daily Le Monde that there may be "points of convergence" with the unions--a sign that even Sarkozy's allies are worried by the backlash against the pension law.

SP officials--many of whom have accepted the need for reform in principle--may be prepared to make a deal that would make superficial changes, but allow the substance of the law. The SP has already proposed a deal that would keep the retirement age as it is, but increase workers' contributions to the pension fund--a move that would force many workers to stay on the job longer anyway.

The unions are planning to take to the streets again September 23 to protest the law when it comes before the Senate.

For its part, the far left is campaigning not for compromise, but for a withdrawal of the bill. The point to labor's successful struggle against pension reform against a conservative government in 1995 and against an attack on the employment security of young people, known as the CPE, by another right-wing government in 2005.

"If we want to inflict a defeat on the government, September 23 should be the beginning of a whole movement, a general strike to shut down the country," wrote Sandra Demarcq of the NPA. "Already, there are calls for union organization, with local calls between unions calling for renewed activity. The climate shows that we can win. We won in 1995, we won against the CPE, we can and must win today. It's possible."