France: Unions at critical point as strikes continue
NY Times, Steven Erlanger
PARIS — The French strikes and demonstrations over a proposed increase in the retirement age have lasted for weeks and attracted wide sympathy in a society whose work force is less than 10 percent unionized. But the proposal will soon become law, setting the stage for confrontations with France’s unions, which continue to starve the country of gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products, and are pressing for demonstrations afterward.
It will be a treacherous moment for most of the players in French politics, not least of all the unions themselves. The outcome is likely to set the tone for the many similar conflicts that are sure to arise in future years as the government seeks to deal with a budget deficit by scaling back generous social welfare provisions the state can no longer afford.
President Nicolas Sarkozy insists he will not back down, and in fact wants to contrast his firmness with the weakness of governments that have let the “democracy of the street” overrule that of an elected Parliament.
If he does persevere, the unions — by continuing futile demonstrations that only annoy French drivers, businessmen, and tourists and have cost France billions to date — risk displaying their historical weakness, rather than their strength.
“Since 1995, on the national level, the unions haven’t brought home a victory against the state,” said Stéphane Sirot, a historian of the labor movement at the University of Cergy-Pontoise. “One can say the unions have been in a crisis for the last 20 years.” Still, he said, the protests today, with popular sympathy and student involvement, “shows there is still a certain vigor.”
The unions, pressed by the more radical and left-wing union CGT, have decided to keep pushing the government, with two more days of national demonstrations on Thursday and again on Nov. 6, trying to force Mr. Sarkozy to withdraw the law he has staked so much of his reputation on winning.
François Chérèque, the secretary general of the CFDT, the country’s second-largest union, said that “the employees have asked us to continue, and we’re doing it.” The CGT, which was a Communist union at one time, is more ideological and holds power in the key pressure points of transport, refineries and fuel depots.
But the determination of the protesters — and their dislike of Mr. Sarkozy — is forcing the hand of Mr. Chérèque, whose aides have privately expressed concerns about pressing the strikes too far and damaging the unions, by making them look to the public more like entrenched interests trying to preserve unaffordable privileges than like champions of the little guy.
“Secretly, several leaders of the confederation wouldn’t look unfavorably on a petering-out of the movement,” one Chérèque aide told the newspaper Libération. “They know the Élysée is never going to give in. The longer the movement lasts, the more the frustrations of the protesters are difficult to manage internally,” raising the risk of violence that could drain away even more public support.
For now, whatever their quiet misgivings, the unions are united on more protest.
For many, the issue is not pension reform per se. There is a diffuse anger at Mr. Sarkozy, at his style and apparent arrogance and unwillingness to give way — or to further negotiate. Laurence Laigo, the CFDT’s national secretary, said her union supported strikes, but only to push the government into “a real, transparent debate for our people.” She added, “We want a debate on the reform, not on Sarkozy.”
Michèle Alliot-Marie, the justice minister, said that union leaders, including Bernard Thibault, the head of the CGT, “are well aware of what needs to be done” on pensions, and that most public-service workers are not even affected by the reform; they have their own pension rules. “But their role” is to picket and protest, she said in an interview.
Mr. Sirot, the historian, said that union membership, which was legalized in France in 1884, 60 years after Britain did so, rose above 10 percent of the work force only in the 30 years after 1945, but then declined again to 8 percent today. But union influence, he said, “has been based more on action than percentage of membership.”
Jean-François Copé, leader of the governing party in the National Assembly, called this “a moment of truth for everyone,” but especially for the opposition Socialists and for the unions. “The radicalization of their protests is linked to the low level of union representation,” he said. “The CGT has shown it is unable to be a modern union as we find them in Germany or Spain, where the unions are more consensual and positive. And the CFDT, which is supposed to be moderate, has not been able to be heard.”
While the unionized work force is small, a sizable number of non-union workers have been content to be guided by the union elite, no matter that their interests are theoretically represented by elected members of a democratic Parliament.
It stems not just from the French Revolution and a romance about the solidarity of the streets. There are numerous historical examples of governments giving way.
In 1995, the government abandoned other pension changes in the face of fierce protest. Again, in 2006, a law designed to increase youth employment by making it less burdensome for businesses to hire and fire them — in essence creating a two-year trial contract for those under 26 — was passed by Parliament and signed by President Jacques Chirac. But a widespread student protest, joined by the opposition and the trade unions, forced Mr. Chirac to abandon the law.
The involvement of students seems a key factor again this time, but they are currently on vacation and have been less numerous than in the 2006 demonstrations.
And then there is the involvement of “casseurs,” or smashers, as the government likes to call them. These are viewed as troublemakers, most of them young, who are out to clash with the police and do a little looting.
For the unions, this would be the fourth defeat in seven years, said Mr. Sirot. “That’s going to be hard to swallow, and afterwards it’s going to be hard to motivate people to protest for something else.” Still, he said, if an unpopular Mr. Sarkozy loses the presidential elections in 2012, it will be “a vicarious victory” for the unions, Mr. Sirot said, because “one would attribute that defeat in part to today’s social movement.”
But what would be “a truly devastating failure would be if the social movement fails and Sarkozy is then re-elected,” he said. “For the unions, that would be a real catastrophe.”
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