We have been following French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s fight with France’s unions. Today, the French Senate passed the final version of Sarkozy’s bill to raise the retirement age for French workers from 60 to 62, and retirement with full benefits from 65 to 67. Tomorrow, the National Assembly, where Sarkozy has a larger majority, is also expected to pass the final pension reform bill.
It’s been a long, hard struggle. As many as 3.5 million took to the streets in protest. Unions have used the streets for over a century to bring French governments to their knees, winning in this fashion as recently as 2006. (One protesting student bluntly told the New York Times that 2006 showed “everything a government does, the street can undo.”) Furthermore, Sarkozy is unpopular, with 2/3rds of the country supporting the strikers.
But when protesters escalated the struggle by striking all 12 of France’s refineries and blocking many oil depots, thereby disrupting gasoline supplies and prompting motorists into panic-buying, the unions apparently went to far. Last week, a poll found 54% of the population opposed the oil refinery blockade, while other strikes drew dwindling support day by day.
Once the new pension law goes into effect, Sarkozy will on another front provide the unions some face-saving victory. In the end, however, his symbolic curbing of union power on the pension issue could be a huge plus for long-term French reform.