With 500,000 transport workers paralyzing French rail and Metro traffic, President Nicolas Sarkozy is in the toughest fight of his young administration. A package of reforms, aimed at cutting costs, would raise the retirement age (French train drivers can now retire at 50); as so often in the past, the railway unions are fighting it with mass strikes that disrupt daily life for millions.
At first glance, the strikers seem to hold most of the cards. In recent conflicts between reform-minded governments and labor unions, labor has usually won. A wave of strikes forced former president Jacques Chirac — once billed as a pro-American reformer — to back down from ambitious reforms introduced early in his first term. Chirac’s authority and élan never recovered from the strike; a snap parliamentary election, which he hoped would give him a mandate, turned into a disaster. The Socialists won a majority, and for the next five years Chirac was forced into an uneasy collaboration with his Socialist rivals.
For many years now protesters and strikers have held the upper hand in France. Last year, over a million people protested a law making it easier to hire and fire young employees; in 1997, truck drivers struck for, and won, the right to full retirement pensions at age 55. The 2005 riots in the mostly Arab and immigrant suburbs around major French cities were arguably part of this pattern: when French citizens don’t like government policy, they take to the streets and cause trouble until the government meets their demands.