14-year-olds of the World, Unite!

by Denis Boyles

My part of France, the western part, ground to a halt yesterday. No gas, no heating oil. The ludicrous strike by state employees and high-school students, led by the ultra-left CGT, has moved into the streets, blocking many of them, especially around refineries, causing more than 3,000 gas stations to close. Last night, French president Nicolas Sarkozy ordered those blockades be removed. Le Figaro has the story today. He’s not going to be able to back down without committing political suicide. The same fate seems to await him if he moves forward.

So Sarko is doing a Thatcher, making a slow march toward his miners’-strike moment. I heard an American make that trite remark about how at least the French aren’t like decadent Yanks — they don’t live to work, he said. They work to live. But that’s not quite right, since, because of eurozone rules, Germany (which is paying off its debt) has to pick up the tab for France (which is increasing its debt). So the Germans work so the French can live on pensions after age 60, the ultra-low retirement age Sarkozy’s trying to revise. 

Normally, when French domestic-policy debates reach an impasse, he with the most cobblestones wins. Remember what happened a few years ago when Chirac tried to implement a very minor reform of employment regs? (You can refresh your memory by visiting this quaint-looking archived page.) Stones flew. And sure enough, the recruitment by the unions of teenagers to join the ranks of striking pseudo-proles is having the predictable result of notching up the violence. Hundreds of lycées are closed in France. Events in Lyon, where, as reported by Le Parisien, teenagers have run amok, may be a preview of what’s to come as the government tries to get things going again.

This fits the normal strategy of French unionists. If enough violence breaks out, then the government will appear, rightly, to have lost control of the situation. The strikers’ bet is Sarko will then do what 50 years of French presidents have done — and why reform of an indulgent retirement policy is necessary — and back down. Giving teenagers a free bullhorn, a street full of rocks and a week off school is how the CGT plans to succeed in inspiring the violence they think they need to win.

The unions’ complaints are not terribly convincing. Changing France’s retirement age, the lowest in the developed world, to something affordable is a necessity the country will have to face soon no matter who is in power. But Sarkozy’s personal popularity is below street level and the government is the country’s biggest employer, so it’s not surprising that a poll released this morning shows six in ten respondents support a moratorium on reform. Meanwhile, the Senate is debating the reform now. It will soon pass and become law.

Something will have to give, and the next day or two will tell the tale. The strike is already making a mess for travelers and pushing up fuel prices all over Europe. And the Germans, who have responsibly embraced needed reforms, are very wary. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently signed a deal with Sarkozy that the normal application of EU sanctions against debtor nations — that is, loss of EC voting rights — will not be automatically applied against France, giving him a millimeter of maneuvering space. That move has gotten her in political trouble at home, according to L’Express.

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