France stands on the brink of paralysis as an increasing number of unions call for more days of national protest and blockades in an attempt to overturn President Sarkozy’s hugely unpopular pension reforms, due to voted on by the French Senate on Wednesday.
Petrol stations scattered across France are reporting shortages or having to close due to running dry, and flights landing at Charles De Gaulle airport are being told to ensure they have enough fuel for the return flight, such is the shortage of available reserves. Nearly all of France’s refineries and oil depots have been forced to close by striking staff, and numerous tankers have been forced to wait outside the port of Marseilles, whose terminals have been blockaded by strikers. There have been scenes of violence between protesters and riot police in the streets of Paris, which is also seeing increasing levels of youth and student involvement.
Government ministers have been quick to downplay both the significance and legitimacy of the strikes. “The government is in control,” said Industry Minister Christian Estrosi, going on to assure “there will be no blockades for companies … for transport … for road users”. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that he would not allow the strikes to unduly impact the economy, and that “the right to strike isn’t the right to stop access to a fuel depot. That’s an illegal action”. Despite the assurances panic buying of petrol continues across the country, with long queues from petrol stations and increasing anger from citizens.
According to unions around 2.5 million people took to the streets in protest last week, although police reports put it lower at around 825,000. Although the vote is imminent and seems decided, the pressure from strikers and unions is not letting up. Truck drivers have joined in the past few days, enacting ‘go-slows’ on the motorways surrounding major cities and ports and rail unions are calling for fresh strikes to coincide with a day of action from other sectors, including refuse collection and other public sector utilities.
The unrest has occurred in response to plans to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62, and the age at which full state pension can be paid from 65 to 67. There is no history of privately funded pensions in France, meaning that nearly everyone relies on state pensions once they leave the workplace. President Sarkozy and his government believe the reform to be vital for the French economy, and the measures seem likely to receive the final backing needed on Wednesday, which it is hoped will diffuse further protest. Surveys however suggest that some 70 percent of people believe that the reforms are unjust, and only slightly less want the strikes and blockades to force a change or reversal in policy.
France has a long and well-documented history of public protest against unpopular new legislation, but there are also increasing signs that the protests are beginning to feed off other underlying issues, such as unemployment. Far from being confined in impact to the present, it seems likely that the longer they go on the more damage will be done to Mr Sarkozy’s election chances in 18 months time, where the Socialist party will hope to take power. Their leader, Ségolène Royal, was criticised as acting irresponsibly last week for encouraging people to turn out and protest. The party will be keen to capitalise on this dramatic demonstration of public dissatisfaction. For his part, Mr Sarkozy seems intent on playing the hard statesman and promising that the reforms will go ahead. His attention is firmly fixed on France’s upcoming hosting of both the G8 and G20 in mid-November and he will be determined to seem in control of the finances and organisation of the nation, which will allow him to try and regain support by fighting for French global interests.
The French government and commentators will be watching to see whether the protests endure beyond the vote on Wednesday, which may well depend on what if any concessions may be given in order to try and placate the unions and protestors. Student protesters on this side of the Channel may be watching to see what overall impact the youth movement has on the eventual policy outcome, no doubt looking for lessons that can be applied to the upcoming higher education protests in London in early November.