President Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to reform the French pension system has catalysed fierce public anger over a much wider range of questions than the proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age of full pension entitlement from 65 to 67, starting in 2018 and 2016 respectively. Six major countrywide demonstrations, with average turnouts of over three million, have already occurred, with remarkably little violence. The public and private sectors have been affected, including public transport, education, postal services, energy, and ports. Now, with refineries blockaded, petrol stations are running dry too. Mr. Sarkozy says he is reforming pensions in order to reduce the budget deficit, currently 7.7 per cent of GDP, but his position is increasingly fragile. He has made several concessions in the draft legislation, even though the Senate has passed the age-related clauses. He has to bear in mind the stinging electoral backlash his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) suffered in the regional elections in March, when the Left-Green alliance won 23 out of 26 assemblies. Most interestingly, the President's own poll ratings are languishing around 30 per cent while the strikes are getting better than 70 per cent in public support.
The political issues are of worldwide importance. As happens when the French public are really angry, university students and older school pupils have joined in, thereby continuing a national tradition in political education. Other new participants are the residents of poorer and often neglected suburbs. Older citizens resent the contempt shown for their own productivity, which has kept the French economy in better condition than most developed economies during the global crisis. Younger people, the first French generation for nearly 200 years to face a worse future than their parents did, fear for their prospects in the short and long term under a government noted for its arrogance, the brutality of its police, and corruption. In all age groups, there is great bitterness towards the banks, which caused the crisis and continue to make colossal profits after being bailed out by the public. The pension reform will hit the working classes hardest; they have lower life expectancy and can expect shorter retirements than the rich, and now they will have to work for a greater part of their lives. Mr. Sarkozy's project of recreating France in the neoliberal image is crashing around him. Infuriated by his implementation of neoliberal solutions to problems caused by neoliberalism, the people are making France the first major industrial country to pose a direct challenge to the world's dominant orthodoxy.