You have to give it to President Nicolas Sarkozy. There seems to be no limit to his ambitions or his self-confidence. His wife leaves him on the grounds that life in the presidential palace is simply too boring for words, and he is spotted with other beautiful women in restaurants. In America, he has a love-in with President Bush, shattering hardened Gaullist prejudices. The creation of the state of Israel, he thinks, is a 20th-century miracle, and this must have brought cardiologists racing round to the Quai d’Orsay where they are quite sure that Israel is a thorough horror.
He’s also rather more than doubled his salary, a sign that he must be very sure of himself. The timing is — what shall we say — unpropitious. France is in the grip of strikes. Work more to earn more, is Sarkozy’s Stakhanovite message, and people don’t want to hear it. Half a million transport and power employees are asked to work more years for smaller pensions. Some railwaymen are currently able to retire at fifty on full pay. So the trains and subways aren’t running, columns of traffic a hundred miles long build up, the bicyclists and hikers have to make the best of it on their way to work.
At the same time students are blocking thirty of the 85 French universities, because they fear they may have to pay tuition fees and lose other privileges. Magistrates are striking in the face of a re-ordering of the courts. At the Opera, the terms of employment of the technicians were drawn up in Louis XIV’s day in 1698, and proposals to update have brought them out too. No Nutcracker Suite. Terms of employment for civil servants have hardly changed since they were drawn up by Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister who put his centralizing stamp on the country, and they’re threatening strike action too.
“Everyone to the barricades!” is the grand old cry of a grand old French tradition that also goes way back. 1968 was the last time that there was anything like real rioting, and it had a Cold War dimension on to which the Communists latched. Recently, the element of theatre has generally prevented anything much worse than cobble stones flying in the air and tear-gas fired back by the police. The government then gives way with as much grace as it can muster.
This time, things may well be different, and there may not even be much of a test of strength. The Communist trade unions have lost the appetite for class warfare, anti-capitalism and all that, and they seek compromise. A poll in the Figaro shows that 84 percent expect Sarkozy to stand firm. Spoilsport! If he wins, and succeeds in pushing through his modernizing reforms, France won’t be quite the same again.