Sarkozy's pensions reforms are passed but at what cost?

A protester in Bordeaux holds a placard reading: "Terminus: Retirement at 60" (20 Oct 2010)
Image caption President Nicolas Sarkozy fully expects the pension reforms to become law by mid-November

The vote on the final text of the bill in the lower house, the National Assembly, brings an end to the parliamentary debate.

And, with it, there is a sense that the protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reforms are now petering out.

The fuel depot blockades have been cleared, workers at several oil refineries have voted to return to work and while the majority still support the unions, they are less sure about the methods employed.

According to one Ifop poll published this week, 59% oppose the blockades of roads, depots and companies.

Perhaps the public has had enough?

There is no sign whatsoever of President Sarkozy backing down.

He cannot afford to, he maintains. Not when workers' contributions cover only nine pensions out of every 10.

Union splits

Despite statements of unity from all the various union federations, splits are appearing over how to proceed.

They all know the next step is crucial in determining how this ends. Moral victory or humiliating defeat?

The more radical branch of the union movement, the CGT, vows to keep pushing, with two more days of national demonstrations planned for Thursday 28 October and Saturday 6 November.

The CGT controls the major pressure points - the oil refineries, several of which remain closed.

The depots may be clear but only a fraction of the crude oil is coming in.

The country's second-largest union, the more moderate CFDT, says it supports the two further strike days called for Thursday and 6 November.

"Employees have asked us to continue, and we're doing it," said secretary general Francois Chereque.

But they know it is a risk.

Thursday's day of action comes in the midst of a 10-day half-term break. If the numbers on the street are significantly lower than previous demonstrations, that would be counted as a public relations disaster.

Mr Sarkozy's spokesman Raymond Soubie told Europe 1 radio on Sunday that the president fully expected the law to be entered into the statute books by 15 November.

So the president will have his victory. The question is at what cost?

Refusal to listen

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde says since the strike action began the economy has lost up to 400m euros per day, not to mention the damage to its international image.

The biggest cost, however, is to the image of the president himself.

A BVA Orange L'Express poll this week showed 71% of the population were unhappy with his policies; and only 5% of those in favour said they were fully behind him.

No-one should be surprised that the president has taken such an unyielding position on this bill.

The secrets to the way he would govern were there in his biography, Testimony, before he became leader.

He felt that his presidential predecessors, Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac, "were statesmen who focused more on history and French traditions than on reforming France. My focus as president will be on what I want to build."

They were presidents who listened to the street.

"By maximising his personal authority, he has also maximised his personal responsibility," says Jim Shields, Professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University in the UK.

"Such a style is always inherently risky, if things go bad."

Image caption The unions have called two further national demonstrations but are wary of annoying the public

Changing picture

Mr Sarkozy can at least go to the country in 2012 as the reformer he promised to be, hoping that contrary to what the polls suggest there is a silent majority in France that believes the unions need to be faced down.

He will also hope that the picture will soon change.

In November, France takes over the presidency of the Group of 20 nations giving the president an international stage to push issues that resonate with French voters, such as regulating financial markets.

He will reshuffle his cabinet, perhaps removing some of those who became synonymous with the recent controversy.

The unions meanwhile will hope they can secure a moral victory and chip away at whatever popularity Mr Sarkozy has left.

For them this is the first battle of a much longer war on protecting welfare provisions.

But tactically they also recognise there is a tipping point in this battle.

By continuing futile demonstrations that only annoy French drivers, businessmen, and tourists - they risk displaying their weakness, rather than their strength.

"Since 1995, on the national level, the unions haven't brought home a victory against the state," says Stephane Sirot, a historian of the labour movement at the University of Cergy-Pontoise.

And yet it is the determination of the rank and file union members - and their dislike of President Sarkozy - that is forcing the hand of union leaders.

Those leaders know the Elysee Palace is never going to give in.

The longer the movement lasts, the more the frustrations of the protesters will be difficult to manage internally.

It could be a messy ending.

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