When he entered the Elysée palace in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy dreamed of a glorious destiny. Enthusiastic commentators predicted that his casual populism would revamp the Bonapartist right, and that his Gallic brand of neoliberal policies would sell the “American dream” to a mistrustful population. Things have not gone according to plan. Sarkozy wanted to be the French JFK; today he looks more like Louis XVI awaiting trial in 1793. He may escape the guillotine, but his presidency is now under siege.
The French are deeply unhappy with the way they have been governed, but their main grievance is about pension reform, which is seen as a cynical ploy to make ordinary people work more for inferior entitlements, while bailed-out bankers and the rich get tax rebates and continue to enjoy the high life. Over the past month, six national demonstrations have gathered together an estimated average of 3.5 million per action day. The latest, on Tuesday, was again a big success.
The movement is popular: 69% of the nation back the strikes and demonstrations; 73% want the government to withdraw the reform. And high school pupils have now joined the fray. Over 1,000 high schools are on strike as the youngsters take to the streets to protest against mass unemployment and the raising of the retirement age. The government has patronisingly labelled them as “manipulated kids”, but these comments have backfired and served only to galvanise the young, who have hardened their resistance and taken further interest in the reform. When interviewed by the media, pupils come across as articulate and knowledgable. Parents worry about their children’s future, so they will not stop them from striking.
In France, strikes and demonstrations are seen as a civilised and effective way to enact one’s citizenship. Students are expected to join marches from an early age, receiving by the same token a “political education”. France’s youth have always scared governments because of their radical potential. Student demonstrations of late have been invariably popular because people know that the young have been badly hit by unemployment over the past 30 years.
University students are preparing to strike as well. Sarkozy, like Louis XVI in 1789, does not seem to have grasped how volatile the situation has become. He should know better. Since May 1968, all governments have been forced on the ropes every time youngsters have entered a social movement. This time it could prove crucial in helping to reach a tipping point; a stage in the conflict where the balance of power switches from the government toward those opposing the pension reform.
Last week, Sarkozy had to send in riot police to reopen fuel depots blocked by strikes in several places. Yet several hundred filling stations had to shut because they had run out of supplies. Lorry and train drivers are also starting strike actions.
How can the current situation be interpreted? Undoubtedly, the rebellion seems durable and runs deeper than the question of pensions. The reform has triggered a web of collective actions that are now spreading fast. Discontent is fuelled by low incomes and unemployment, but also by the impact of the crisis on people’s daily life, the arrogance of the Sarkozy presidency, corruption cases and police brutality.
There is a sense of moral outrage at the imposition of a neoliberal medicine to cure an illness caused by the same neoliberal policies. The French are not hostile to reforms: they just demand those that redistribute wealth and allocate resources to those who need it the most. Any comparison with May ’68, however, may be hasty. Then, France was experiencing a period of economic prosperity. Today, events occur in the context of a deep economic depression. This is why the political situation is potentially explosive. Radicalised workers and youngsters are forcing the unions to up their game. The normally toothless Socialist party has pledged to return the retirement age to 60, should it come back to power in 2012.
One can envisage two possible scenarios. Opposition to the reform hardens, in which case Sarkozy may have to water it down or even withdraw it. This would mark the first major popular victory in Europe against the post-2008 neoliberal order. Alternatively, Sarkozy stays put and imposes a deeply unpopular reform, in which case the political price to pay for the incumbent president would be very high, should he decide to run again in 2012.
PHILIPPE MARLIÈRE is professor of French and European politics at University College, London (UK). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.