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Sarkozy ready to battle the unions

The president faces a tough fight: France is famously protective of its long vacations and generous benefits.

September 24, 2007|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The man the French call the "hyper-president" has just gone into warp speed in his drive to change the country.

Since he was elected in May, Nicolas Sarkozy has been barreling ahead on his plan to reinvent practically every aspect of French society, ascending so many podiums, appearing so relentlessly with new ideas at public forums from Bordeaux to Brussels, that a French magazine recently demanded the media have a "Sarkozy-Free Day."

Pas de chance.

After spending the previous two days courting union leaders, he took time last Monday to muse about a French architectural renaissance. Then, on Tuesday, he picked his first fight, with the unionized workers of the public sector. On Wednesday, he was out to slash civil service jobs, and by Thursday there was more talk of social reform and three television appearances to pitch it.

No program is too small, no detail too insignificant for the new man running the Elysee Palace. In fact, a popular comedy segment on French TV has a recurring joke with a panicked husband calling the show every night to report that his wife just fell down the stairs, or got a paper cut.

"Can we call the president?" the husband asks.

"Sure, he's already on his way," is the response.

Today, the president, also called the "presidator," will appear on the world stage -- at the United Nations General Assembly, where he's likely to continue to realign France with the United States and the rest of Western Europe over key policies such as how to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

But it's the domestic challenge that Sarkozy confronted last week that will be the defining moment of his presidency, experts agree. France has been famously protective of its style of work: long vacations, short workweeks and generous benefits that allow people to retire as young as 50.

Sarkozy came into office saying reform was necessary for France to compete effectively in the global economy. Last week he took on a sacred cow: a pension plan so generous and coveted that more than one French leader has tried to change it and failed. Although it's only one piece of the larger problem of the high cost and hidebound nature of French labor, it's a crucial test.

"Sarkozy promised a lot, and now he has to start to deliver," said Philippe Maniere, director of the Montaigne Institute, a bipartisan think tank in Paris. "He's been dynamic, with a strategy of being everywhere and anywhere and not being afraid of shocking people. But will he do enough in a short enough time with enough results? Now we'll find out."

Many in this nation's capital believe Sarkozy is hoping for a quick and symbolic victory over "special regimes," as the early-retirement benefits for rail, gas and electric workers are known, so that next year he can start revamping the pensions of the rest of the public sector, which employs one-fifth of French workers.

Sarkozy's row with the unions over the special regimes is being likened to the confrontations in the 1980s between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and striking coal miners and between President Reagan and striking air traffic controllers. Reagan and Thatcher both came out ahead -- and went on to implement more labor overhauls.

"Did [Sarkozy] pick the right union, the right enemy? You know, he's probably been thinking about that right now," Maniere said. "But no one really knows if his strategies will work."

He certainly picked a susceptible target for reform: The pensions for the 1.1 million retirees have long created resentment because they are considered so much cushier compared with what people outside the system get. And the pensions are creating a $10-billion deficit.

Along with announcing Tuesday that he wanted to revamp these pensions, Sarkozy said he didn't want to waste time: Negotiations would start the next day.

"When they tell me that I do too much, it amuses me, because I think that I'm still not doing enough," Sarkozy said this month.

Sarkozy's "hyperactivity" is just a pendulum swing against the "hyper-inactivity" of his predecessors, including Jacques Chirac, and various prime ministers who served under Chirac for 12 years and continually backed off attempts at reform, said Timothy B. Smith, a professor at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada.

'Root of prosperity'

Taking on workers' benefits, reducing the civil service by 22,000 workers (as Sarkozy announced he would last week), changing rules for the 35-hour workweek and unemployment are all part of the new president's strategy to jump-start the economy, Smith said.

"His goal is to convince the French that the marketplace -- not the state in and of itself -- is the root of prosperity," said Smith, the author of "France in Crisis," a 2004 book that described France as a welfare state with stagnant growth, persistent high unemployment and enduring racial strife. "He wants the French to finally make peace with capitalism."

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