Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Amid Strikes, French Leader Vows Order

October 19, 2010

Amid Strikes, French Leader Vows Order

New York Times

PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Tuesday “to guarantee order,” restore fuel supplies and crack down on “troublemakers,” as a quarter of France’s gas stations ran dry and other disruptions built from nationwide protests and strikes.

His comments marked a hardening of the government’s resolve to hold to its program of reforming the indebted pension system despite the job actions by public workers at refineries and railways and in other key sectors. The final parliamentary vote on the plan may not come until early next week.

While some French officials argued that fewer protesters were turning out, the damage to the economy is only beginning to be tallied, and there appears to be enough political fallout to potentially cost all the players.

The gas stations ran out of supplies because of transport problems; stocks remained adequate. Furious drivers waited in lines for expensive fuel and worried openly about their plans for the pending two-week school break. Numerous flights were canceled, railway travel was disrupted and garbage went uncollected in some major cities.

Some truckers staged “escargot,” or snail protests, driving in teams very slowly on the highways; others blocked fuel depots or vowed to stop distributing cash to A.T.M.’s.

The prime minister, François Fillon, promised that gasoline supplies would return to normal in four or five days. Mr. Fillon said fewer protesters were turning out and that the street demonstrations had “begun to lose steam.”

“But at the same time, the movement is radicalizing,” he said, after reports of masked youths clashing with the police, throwing bottles and setting scattered fires in French cities.

Jérôme Sainte-Marie, head of political research for the French polling institute C.S.A., said, “We are in a situation where government and the unions are losing control, and if something serious happens, it will both weaken the unions and be a catastrophe for the government.”

Even the Socialists are worried, he said, “because they could be largely discredited if there are excesses” and violence.

Mr. Sarkozy’s major mistake, Mr. Sainte-Marie said, was to accelerate the pension reform when it appeared that the French had accepted his demographic arguments last spring, and then to cut off serious discussion with the unions and the opposition. “Social dialogue was interrupted,” he said, and the uncertainty is made worse by the coming cabinet reshuffle, because ministers taking responsibility for handling the crisis may soon lose their jobs.

A large number of students have joined the protests as a kind of generational rite of passage, he said. “Young people have built a general abhorrence at all levels toward Sarkozy,” he noted, “but there is also the idea in France that you must participate at least once in your life in a social movement.”

But they also harbor some of the deepest fears of unemployment, which will only be worsened when older workers delay retirement.

For Mr. Sarkozy, already with low favorability ratings in the opinion polls, the pension reform has become a crucial test. Giving way would cost him his credibility and make it extremely difficult for him to carry out the budget cuts he has promised next year and the year after. The cuts are intended to bring France’s large deficit under better control and to try to ensure that France keeps its AAA ratings in the markets.

All over the euro zone, governments trying to cut spending and borrowing, bringing a new austerity to a comfortable European way of life, are suffering in the polls. Mr. Sarkozy’s problems have been magnified by a generalized anxiety about France’s generous retirement system. His effort to raise the minimum age for a partial pension to 62 from 60 and for a full pension to 67 from 65 is a visible and symbolic example of a loss of a highly prized social gain achieved under the opposition Socialists.

But Mr. Sarkozy argues that with demographic changes, France can no longer afford the social model of the past. Even the current pension reform will take France only through 2018 before the system falls again into deficits.

“I understand the anxiety,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “In a democracy, everyone can express themselves, but they must do so without violence and without excesses.”

It is his “duty,” he said, to restore order and to pass the pension reform.

“There are people who want to work, the vast majority, and they cannot be deprived of gasoline,” he said.

Exactly how many French people are protesting is uncertain. Union leaders generally give estimates of demonstrations three or four times those of the government and the police.

The Interior Ministry said that 1.1 million people demonstrated throughout France on Tuesday, down from 1.23 million on Oct. 12. In Paris, the police said that 67,000 people demonstrated, down from 89,000. The main union, the C.G.T., said that 3.5 million people demonstrated throughout France on both days.

Opinions differed on their deeper motives.

At the Gare du Nord, where travelers waited on benches and then raced for suburban trains running on a reduced schedule, a writer from the western city of Nantes said that the protests were something like a referendum on Mr. Sarkozy. “He has a lifestyle that doesn’t look like that of everyone,” said the writer, Emmanuel de Boos, 56. “This is a reaction against the elite.”

Some said the storm would pass.

Stéphane Verrier, 45, corporate salesperson for Orange, a telecommunications company, checked the train delays on his BlackBerry and said, “I’m taking all of this with a certain calm.” Retirement reform is inevitable, he said: “I’m for the reform as it is, because there’s an inexorable logic behind it.” The reform will move France more in line with other European nations.

He supported the strikers’ right to strike, he said. “But you have to find a happy medium.”

Pascal Cardot, 51, a baker in Belfort, in eastern France, was on vacation in Paris with his family. The strike is less popular in the provinces, he said. “We will have to work more anyway because we live longer,” he said. He sympathizes with the strikers, but said, “I believe the strike will run out of steam because people are losing money.”

As for himself, he said, he has canceled plans to drive to Cannes on Sunday because of the lack of gasoline. But he came to Paris prepared: he has a full can of gasoline in his trunk to get the family back home.

Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell, Nicola Clark, Maïa de la Baume, Scott Sayare and Marie-Pia Gohin.

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