Europe

Testing Sarkozy's mettle

Riot police officers during a high school student demonstration in Lyon, 21/10
Image caption School holidays could help decide who comes out on top

For all those despairing of the state of France, a word of comfort. This too will pass.

French protests follow a pretty regular pattern. When you are in the middle of them, it is hard to imagine anything other than the chaos. But then they stop - and quite abruptly life gets back to normal.

So rest assured, the mayhem is finite. The question is when - but also how - it will eventually reach its conclusion.

In most previous battles between the street and the government, the powers that be have either caved in completely or at least offered some face-saving measure to the protesters.

But previous battles took place under a very different style of presidency. Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand were men who believed in their role as benign father of the nation.

Historically France is a country riven by division and violence. This is an important factor in politics because the unspoken fear is that once again French people might start actually cutting each other's throats.

So previous leaders have instinctively played the conciliator - the real danger in any social crisis being a collapse of law and order and rioting in the streets.

But Nicolas Sarkozy is a man of different mettle.

Far from wishing to conciliate, he calculates that since he is already unpopular there is no point in also being ineffective.

With presidential elections looming in 2012, his only chance for a second term will be if he can turn to the voters and say: Look, I was the president who finally disproved the notion that France is incapable of reform.

Defender of the rich?

Many outside France will applaud the idea of a Gallic Thatcher, a leader finally prepared to take on the vested interests of the unions and the left.

The trouble is that in France, such behaviour is against the rules of the game.

Image caption His supporters believe Nicolas Sarkozy is cut from different cloth to his predecessors

One of the most striking facts about the current protests is the number of people declaring their support has actually gone up as the disruption has spread.

This is because a large part of the population sees the president as being intransigent and dictatorial. They also see him as a defender of the rich, and this brings them out in republican spots.

It is not unusual to hear people making comments such as: "Who does he think he is? A king?" or "What is he trying to do - provoke a revolution?"

In other words, the folk memories are very much alive.

Many people believe their lives are being wrecked by a man in a palace with lots of rich friends - and they want to stop him.

Determined ruler meets obdurate masses: the lines seem set for weeks of confrontation.

Divisive action

So how are things likely to develop? The pensions bill has now been adopted definitively by the Senate (albeit after a government guillotine that further infuriated the left).

Early next week a committee of senators and members of the National Assembly will agree on a common text, which will then be put for a final vote in both houses. By Wednesday or Thursday, the bill will have completed its passage through parliament.

The unions have announced two new protest days - 28 October and 6 November.

The government's hope is that once the law has been adopted, support for these new protests will fade because it will be too late.

But the parliamentary vote is not necessarily the end of the story. After a law is passed in France, there is a pause of two or three weeks before it is officially promulgated. This is to allow for challenges before the Constitutional Council.

In 2006, a controversial youth employment law was passed by parliament in the teeth of student unrest. But before it could be promulgated, the then Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin had yielded to the street.

So the so-called CPE law was passed by the country's democratic representatives, but remained null and void.

This is the precedent that today's protesters believe they can emulate.

If they can keep up the numbers in the demonstrations; if school and university students take up the baton and continue their wildcat actions; if fuel shortages can be made to bite - then maybe even this president can be humbled.

But there is another scenario, and perhaps it is the more likely one.

Here are some facts: the trains in France are running pretty much as normal. The fuel situation is getting better. School half-term is about to start, so there will be no concentrations of lyceens for two weeks.

Many people are sick of the vandalism that has accompanied some of the protests. They do not approve of fuel blockades. Deep down, many see the pension reform as inevitable.

As we said: this too will pass.

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