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Walker's World: France's general strike

By
MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

PARIS, March 18 (UPI) -- The general strike called this week by French labor union leaders and students has won widespread public sympathy, with opinion polls reporting 74 percent support for Thursday's "Day of Action," which threatens to become a serious political crisis for the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The public mood, never in great sympathy with Sarkozy's reform plans to liberalize the economy and labor market, has been badly affected by rising unemployment and incidents like the announcement of hundreds of job losses by the Total oil and gas giant despite a record profit of more than $20 billion. Even the government's labor minister called that "scandalous."

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It is always dangerous for a French government to fight on two fronts, against the students and against the labor unions at the same time. But that is the position Sarkozy now faces, and he does so with very little public support behind him.

Last week 60,000 students and academics took to the streets to protest Sarkozy's education reforms, which are fairly modest by U.S. or British standards. The reforms seek to give university leaders more control over staff time and to require graduate students who are not actively researching to do some teaching. They also try to tighten the qualifications for teacher training.

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But the reforms have been characterized as a right-wing plot against academic freedom and against the broad thrust of Sarkozy's initial plans to modernize France by reducing the role of the state and promoting private enterprise. Staff representatives at 22 of France's 33 university institutes of technology voted for an indefinite strike. Foreign students at the Sorbonne in Paris have been told they should consider going home to try to get academic credits for this semester, since they are unlikely to be awarded them in France after the constant interruptions in teaching.

Condemned by the left as "imposing the Anglo-Saxon law of the jungle" on France, that initial strategy of Sarkozy has fallen victim to the economic crisis and the need for more state intervention to bail out banks and stricken plants in the auto industry. But despite his backtracking and concessions to students and labor unions, Sarkozy is still vulnerable to the "Anglo-Saxon" label.

And like the left in France, Sarkozy is aware of the almost mythical power in France of "la rue," the term that embraces protest marches, strikes, riots and militant action of all kinds. Back in December, when he saw riots rage in the Greek capital of Athens for weeks on end, Sarkozy warned his Council of Ministers that the economic crisis threatened a new wave of militancy across Europe.

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That was when Sarkozy began to drop his school and university reform program, worried that the combination of labor unions and students could become explosive, as it was in 1968 in the riots and strikes that led, a year later, to the fall of President Charles de Gaulle.

Labor militancy is spreading across the country, after last week's incident when the head of Sony in France was detained overnight by his employees at a plant threatened with closure. Workers at the Continental tire factory Monday stormed the company boardroom at Rheims and pelted managers with eggs, while outside, hundreds more facing unemployment chanted, "We are not Kleenex," a term that has become slang for disposable staff.

"Whether at Sony or Continental or elsewhere, the employees have nothing more to lose; they reckon nobody cares about them, that they don't count," said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Force Ouvriere union.

Thursday's strike is expected to affect public transport and schools most strongly, but many government offices will be hard hit, along with some parts of private industry (like Total) where tempers are running high. The goal for the coalition of labor leaders behind the general strike call is to exceed the 2 million who stopped work on "Black Thursday," Jan. 19, in the last Day of Action.

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There is an element of theater about all this. This week's general strike was initially called back in January, before Sarkozy made concessions and agreed to hold "a summit of the social partners," including unions, government and business leaders. Sarkozy then announced a "fiscal package" to stimulate the economy, which included a series of tax cuts on overtime and sales taxes in restaurants. But the economic crisis means that little overtime was available.

Union leaders want the tax cuts scrapped and replaced by a new "social investment fund" that is being set up to fund work training and investment in "green" jobs in alternative energy. So that is one theme of the marches planned for Thursday, even though the "green jobs" theme is one that Sarkozy himself has backed as a Europe-wide project. And now Sarkozy has irritated his European partners by making protectionist speeches about French-owned car plants needing to employ French car workers in France, rather than seeking cheap labor in the Czech Republic.

Sarkozy's presidency is not seriously in question, and he has three more years in office. But his government is on the defensive, and Sarkozy keeps making new enemies. His latest gesture on the international scene, announcing France's return to the joint military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has infuriated the left. It also has irritated many nationalists and Gaullists on the right, who recall that de Gaulle took France out of the NATO command in 1966 as a symbolic act of French independence.

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Those on the left who see the chance of a new 1968 are likely to be disappointed. Those were boom years, with a much larger industrial working class and stronger labor unions. These days, job security is the priority for many employees. But France is in for some days of drama and street theater, which could turn ugly as the economic crisis deepens. And one key group so far has been remarkable for its silence: the immigrant youngsters of the grim public housing estates who rocked the country four years ago with a month of rage that saw thousands of cars burned across France. This month's labor market statistics found that among immigrants, unemployment is running at 8 percent for those from Europe, and at 23 percent for those from elsewhere, mainly North Africa.

If their violence joins the anger of the students and the resentment of the labor unions, that could be a very dangerous mix indeed for Sarkozy and France.

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