On October 19 the French were out in the streets again, protesting government plans to raise the retirement age, undaunted by warnings of dire consequences if the present social unrest continued.
And Nicolas Sarkozy, the most unpopular president in France's post war history, remained unmoved, repeatedly saying that he will not negotiate. The question now is: who will blink first.
On that Tuesday, three million people braved foul weather with cold pelting rain and a massive police presence to demonstrate en masse for the sixth time in less than a month. Public opinion is now firmly backing the strikers with 67 per cent of the French saying they want the proposed law to be substantially changed.
Urban guerrilla-style battles between police and angry unemployed youth were reported from Lyon and other cities as were clashes between police and striking students. Fuel shortages have resulted in long queues at petrol pumps as striking workers continue to block oil depots. Oil tankers sent in after special riot police broke up the pickets found their tyres slashed.
Orly and Roissy Charles de Gaulle, the two airports serving the French capital have seen severe disruption of traffic. Train lines are running intermittently.
The stand-off between striking workers and students and the government has taken a far more alarming turn. And day after day people are coming out in droves to protest against a reform they feel is fundamentally unjust as it penalises women and some of the poorer sections of the population, especially unskilled and semi-skilled manual workers.
At the heart of the protests lie President Sarkozy's plans to reform the nation's state-run pension scheme by raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 in the short run and to 67 by 2018 when the deficit-ridden system is expected to balance its books. On September 16 amid acrimonious scenes, the lower house of parliament, where the President and his allies have an absolute majority, adopted the draft law presented by the government. The French upper house or Senat began discussions on October 5 and is expected to pass the Bill on October 21.
The strikers do not question the fact that the deficit-ridden pension system has to be restructured. France has an ageing population and the demographic pyramid has been inverted, meaning that there are far more retirees than there are active workers who pay into the pension fund. Workers say the legislation penalises certain sections of the workforce such as those engaged in manually taxing jobs or women who have interrupted their careers to bring up their children.
Opponents to the law say the government's high-handed handling of the situation has allowed for no alternatives. “If he had bothered to discuss the issue, a better, more just solution could have been found,” said Socialist leader Martine Aubry.
The hole in the public pension system has been created by the fact that France has an ageing population where there are more pensioners than active workers who pay into the pension fund. If untackled, the present system is expected to ratchet up losses of €50 billion by 2020. In 1945, when the system was introduced, there were roughly four workers for each retiree in France, today the ratio has shrunk to 1.5 workers per retiree.
Two factors have upset this balance: the fact that longevity has increased — women now expect to live up to 87, while male life expectancy is 85 — coupled with a simultaneous drop in the birth rate. The age pyramid in the developed world has been inverted with old people far outnumbering the young. At the same time technological advance has meant that in many industries men have been replaced by machines leading to persistently high rates of unemployment, placing an additional burden on state-funded unemployment benefit schemes.
The situation in France has deteriorated enough to resemble that of 1995 when a three-week-long total strike brought the economy to its knees and forced President Chirac and his government to abandon plans to introduce similar reforms to the pensions and retirement system.
President Nicolas Sarkozy by his stubborn refusal to negotiate with the opposition appears to have painted himself into a corner. He has repeatedly said he will not give an inch. With a Senate dominated by the ruling right wing coalition, the reform bill in its present form is likely to be adopted by the Upper House on October 21. But the bill must then go to a parliamentary commission and return to both houses for a vote on the amendments put forward during debates.
With Presidential elections barely 18 months away, Mr. Sarkozy is trying to shore up support from his core conservative electorate and the extreme right National Front. However, he is in danger of losing precious support from the centre, essential for his re-election.
If the current impasse continues, the protest movement, after a protracted show of strength, could well run out of steam leaving the unions with egg on their face. But that could amount to a pyrrhic victory for President Sarkozy, for the bitterness, anger and frustration generated by his refusal to make any overtures whatsoever, could cost him his second term in office.
Opposition to Sarkozy
President Sarkozy's inflexible governing style has come in for much criticism in recent months and there is growing opposition to him within his own ranks. He has promised a government reshuffle in the weeks ahead and has kept his ministers guessing as to who will stay, who will go and who will be promoted. This incertitude has also destabilised his ministers who have, in recent months, spent more time speculating on the nature and composition of the next government than on their portfolios.
“The game is now open and the knives are being sharpened. Leaders of the ruling coalition are jockeying for posts such as the Speaker, leader of the party and the future prime minister. The President himself appears to have no game plan whatsoever and seems to be rudderless, navigating blindly and whimsically. Whatever the outcome of the present show of force between the opponents of the reform and the President, it will be deeply damaging to the morale of the country and could push France further into recession,” said commentator Francois Langlet.