French Support President in National Labor Strikes


Lisa Bryant

After nine days of crippling national transportation strikes France appeared to be returning to normal Friday amid negotiations between labor unions and government officials. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports that while the walkout has snarled traffic, angered commuters and cost the country millions of dollars there appears to be one winner: French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Even for strike-prone France, this has been a busy week. On Tuesday, teachers, postal workers and fire fighters poured into the streets protesting for better salaries and working conditions. On Wednesday, the tobacconists went on strike against a new anti-smoking law. Meanwhile, students have blocked roughly 40 universities nationwide to express their discontent about government plans to grant higher education institutes greater autonomy.

But it is a massive transportation strike, now in its second week, that has caused the most damage. Although unions and government officials have begun negotiating reforms to special pensions - and more trains are running - the strike continues to snarl traffic, particularly in the Paris area.

The unrest carries all the classic French ingredients. The government proposes reforms. The French protest. The government backs down. But this time around, the country's chief executive is Nicolas Sarkozy.

"After all, Sarkozy was elected to change things. And public opinion is still behind him," said American University of Paris politics professor Steven Ekovich. "And I think he realizes that in order to change things in France - and it is not easy to change things in France because, after all, it is rather conservative - Sarkozy understood that changes in France had to be done quickly and massively and not piece by piece. And we are seeing the consequences of that."

Surveys show a stunning majority of French support their hard-charging new president as he tries to end special pension perks benefiting a small slice of the population, most of them rail and utility workers.

On Sunday, several-thousand protesters even demonstrated against the strikes - an oddity in a country where walkouts usually evoke sentiments of "solidarity" against the authorities.

At the Laumiere metro station in northern Paris, a loudspeaker informed commuters trains were functioning sporadically - rather than not at all, as it had a few days before.

The strike has enraged French commuters, who have waited for hours to get metros and trains to work, or remained snarled in traffic jams. Others walk or bike to work. But Thursday, businessman Philippe du Rhode decided to brave mass transit.

Du Rhode said he was trying to stay calm. He believes France is undergoing a period of major change - and he is for that.

But another commuter, Said Abdallah, was less enthusiastic.

Abdallah said France may need reforms, but he does not like the president's methods. He believes he should negotiate more.

Since taking office in May, Mr. Sarkozy has wasted no time making good on campaign promises to cut government spending and make France more competitive.

He has moved at a breathtaking pace - pushing through university and immigration reforms, coaxing the European Union to adopt a simplified treaty to replace its aborted constitution, sending his former wife to Libya to plead the cause of imprisoned Bulgarian nurses and speeding to Chad in connection with a questionable French charity.

After days of uncharacteristic silence, Mr. Sarkozy urged transport workers Tuesday to return to work, vowing the government would not back down.

In a speech to French mayors, the president urged strikers to reconsider continuing their walkout that has cost the country so dearly. He said those paying the price were ordinary French who have the rightful feeling of being taken hostage.

French analyst Etienne Schweisguth believes Mr. Sarkozy was right to begin his reforms with the special pensions that only affect a small percentage of workers, most of them in the rail sector.

Schweisguth of the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Politics, says if Sarkozy is able to push through these reforms he will have weakened the unions - and that would be a good beginning for his larger strategy.

But whether the president will persevere in the long term is another matter. He has long been criticized for making empty promises - including those during his tenure as interior minister when he promised to overhaul the country's crime-plagued, immigrant-heavy suburbs. Critics say that has not happened.

Analyst Schweisguth says Mr. Sarkozy's problem is that many of the reforms he has pledged will only show results in the long term. So for now, he has to be content with announcements.

A poll published last Sunday in the weekly Journal du Dimanche  found Mr. Sarkozy's popularity had slipped four percentage points since October - but still remained at 55 percent. And with the left and unions divided over reforms, France's president faces no major opposition. At least not for the moment.

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