- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009


As he prepares to entertain President Obama at a NATO summit later this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy - sometimes likened to a racehorse that has to be reined in - is slowing down his quest for dramatic reforms in a nation increasingly doubtful of their success.

He is stymied by the world economic crisis, a rift within his governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and a barrage of labor union demands that, he says, France cannot afford.

Two major strikes and the threat of more industrial action were merely warning signals, his critics say. Opinion polls show a steady loss of the president’s popularity, with close to 70 percent of those who voted him into power now saying they would not do it again.

“We have a president who aggravates the crisis by making the wrong economic and social choices,” said Benoit Hamon, a spokesman for the opposition Socialist Party. He accused the president of “deafness to the general dissatisfaction” and a refusal to answer questions on key economic subjects.

Mr. Sarkozy responded to his critics, saying, “I have the duty to listen to those who protest. But I am also accountable for the ones who are not marching in the streets.”

“Those who suffer the most are not the ones who protest the most,” he said in an hourlong speech last week in the northern town of St. Quentin. He was referring to a nationwide strike that disrupted French air and rail transport on March 19.

The unions say about 3 million people took part in marches accompanying the strike. The authorities estimated the number at 1.5 million.

“This is not just a day of protest,” said Francois Chereque of the powerful CFDT union. “We have made hard proposals, and the government has to give us some serious answers.”

France is accustomed to union-organized strikes, but the social movement that took place two weeks ago also drew oil, banking, pharmaceutical and retail workers as well as people from the auto industry. They marched alongside the public-sector employees who usually form the bulk of French street protesters.

Likewise, opinion polls found French public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the movement.

In an IFOP opinion poll conducted last week, 78 percent of French people said they believed the one-day strike to be “justified.”

“Opinion polls have to be put into perspective” UMP spokesman Frederic Lefebvre told The Washington Times. “President Sarkozy’s positive ratings at the very peak of the worst economic crisis in decades are significantly higher than the one of his predecessors at the same time of their mandates under less trying circumstances,” he said.

Mr. Lefebvre added that Mr. Sarkozy’s popularity was higher than that of his European counterparts, such as Gordon Brown in Britain or Angela Merkel in Germany. “He copes pretty well with the situation,” the spokesman said.

Some of Mr. Sarkozy’s supporters now wonder whether France is willing to submit to dramatic changes, most of which are only on paper, or whether the nation of 61 million with well-embedded social and political concepts can be substantially reformed.

“There has been a lot of activity, but not many results,” said Elie Cohen, one of the economists who advise the prime minister’s office.

“On the contrary, the crisis is prompting us to quicken the pace of the reforms. By no means we will change our course, either economically or socially,” Mr. Lefebvre said.

“Nicolas Sarkozy is very determined to carry out the reforms for which he was elected,” he added “not least because our country has moved back for too long in the face of conservatism.”

Mr. Sarkozy has astounded Europe with his energetic travels from one continent to another and a plethora of proposals and efforts to confirm France as a world power.

Some accuse Mr. Sarkozy of a permanent search for publicity in which his attractive singer-wife, Carla Bruni, has played a significant role.

In the field of foreign policy, Mr. Sarkozy has considerably improved France’s relations with the United States, breaking the 40-year-old Gaullist policy of distance from Washington. He has tried to woo Syria and thus project France into the center of Middle Eastern peacemaking, an effort dwarfed by the recent Israeli incursion in the Gaza Strip.

His ambitious project for a “Union for the Mediterranean,” launched in July but opposed by some European Union members as impractical, has all but fizzled out.

Earlier this month, under Mr. Sarkozy’s influence, the French parliament voted to rejoin NATO’s military structure, a move likely to allow senior French military leaders to participate in the alliance’s decision-making. A summit marking the 60th anniversary of the alliance is to take place Thursday in Strasbourg.

At the same time, the vote led to an acerbic debate and some accusations of French subservience to Washington.

The list of labor union demands includes an increase in the minimum wage, a halt to dismissals of civil servants, protection of employment and increases in family welfare and of unemployment benefits.

Jean-Marcel Bouguereau, a left-leaning columnist, said the strikes throw into sharp relief “social despair on the one hand, with the arrogance of those who govern us on the other.”

Mr. Sarkozy agreed last month to a package of social benefits after a first day of mass protests brought a million people onto the streets in January.

Since then, however, his government had ruled out any new social spending, saying its top priority was to protect jobs and industry without increasing the tax burden.

But in his televised speech in St. Quentin last week, Mr. Sarkozy offered to consider more spending before the summer.

“If the situation should get worse, we will do more,” he said.

This declaration, mainly prompted by the domestic situation, also came as a response to Mr. Obama’s calls for European leaders to do more to kick-start the ailing economy, a week before the April 2 summit of world leaders seeking a common approach to heal the global economy.

“The Americans should remember that in France we already have a lot of shock absorbers to help the people in difficult times. Way more than in the U.S.,” said Mr. Lefebvre of the UMP.

“We have already taken a lot of supportive measures. Those measures will be enforced in April,” he added. “We’ll see by the summer if an additional effort is necessary.”

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