The world is used to hearing about French strikes. This time, the stakes are higher. Strikes and demonstrations have broken out following an attempt by politicians to raise the French retirement age from 60 to 62, hitting not only public transportation but also the nation's fuel supply. More strikes are scheduled for Tuesday, and the French upper Senate chamber will vote on the measure Wednesday. Here's what commentators think is likely to happen in the next few days and months as France struggles with this proposal and, more broadly, the pan-European moves toward austerity.
- 'The Trouble May Have Only Just Begun,' writes 24/7 Wall St.'s Douglas McIntyre. "France's eight largest unions will meet this week to discuss further action. They could, in theory, close most of the French economy." He also points out that unions in France have the power to vote out politicians when they want to. If they shake things up politically, as they seem to want to do, "austerity programs will be weaker than what economists say they ought to be, leaving the region's economic problems unsolved."
- 'The Stakes on Both Sides Are High,' judges The Economist. "President Nicolas Sarkozy needs to show that he can deliver reform despite his low popularity, partly to maintain France's credibility in the bond markets," meanwhile, "unions and the opposition on the left" have their "last chance to flex their muscles on the issue" of pension reform. All, however, is not as it seems, points out the publication, looking at some recent polls:
Some 70% of respondents to one said that they backed the strikes, more than the 54-62% in favour in late 1995. Yet this may be precisely because strikes are less intolerable now for those who try to get to work. And for all the drama on the street, in the same poll 70% said that raising the retirement age was "responsible towards future generations". A silent majority seems to know that demography and economics make pension reform inevitable.
- Watch the Next Two Days The New York Times' Alan Cowell says "issues will likely come to a head in the next 48 hours," with unions strikes on Tuesday and the Wednesday vote. The upper Senate chamber, he says, will "probably approve" the age-raise. He describes "a mood of gathering crisis" on Monday, with "half of France's high speed train services ... canceled," and other demonstrations. The country has been "forced to reach into its strategic, 30-day emergency supplies of fuel at depots because refineries were strike-bound." A sample of the disruption:
Oil industry workers used blazing tires to prevent access to a refinery east of Paris, resisting management efforts to reopen it.
On highways near Lille in the north and Lyon in the south, truckers and protesters snarled traffic by what are called "snail" operations, slowing their vehicles to walking pace.
In the Paris suburb of Nanterre, riot police fired tear gas at some 300 high-school protesters who had set fire to a car, wrecked bus stops and hurled rocks