French President Nicolas Sarkozy is quick to remind everyone that he ran for office on a mandate of reform. He says he has promised to instigate change and there will be no U-turns. Latest opinion polls show up to two-thirds of French people are with him, but it promises to be a rough few weeks. “I was elected to make reforms,” he insists. “The majority of the French people have approved these reforms. I told them I would do it before the elections, and that is why I am seeing them through. Nothing will deter me from my objectives.”
Sarkozy is standing in the frontline of the battle with the unions. In the past it was always the prime minister who faced down dissenters. Francois Fillon is fighting the fight, but in his president’s shadow. “The government will not renege on its promises because it does not have the right as far as the French public is concerned,” Fillon has stressed. “It does not have the right as far as the French people who finance the deficit of these special regimes are concerned.”
Put simply, France cannot afford to have hundreds of thousands of workers retiring early. This year, the government had to set aside five billion euros for the special pensions fund. The protests are nothing new. The French have been here before, 12 years ago. Then, the French public supported the strikers. But analysts say the climate is different now.
Brice Teinturier, the deputy head of opinion pollsters TNS SOFRES says: “Today things have changed, for many reasons, and the French are largely behind these government reforms, feeling it is time to do away with the special regimes. There is not as much sympathy for the demonstrators.”
Former presidential candidate Segolene Royal is not against reform but does not like the president’s methods. “We know how Nicolas Sarkozy works. He relies on the polls. He did that during his campaign, too. He says the strikes are unpopular; he says the special regimes are unpopular. Confrontation is unavoidable and we will see what lasting reforms emerge,” she said.
Sarkozy has lost a few percentage points of support since the election. It remains to be seen if the coming weeks will inflict any serious damage on his ratings.